Holding On – thoughts on suicide

A climber helping a companion over the lip of a rockface.
Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

I heard the news of Robin Williams’ death late on Monday and felt the familiar, hypocritical shock when I learned it was suicide.


The same shock that makes people say things like, “But (s)he didn’t look like a stalker/extremist/Conservative.” Hypocritical because we all know that outer appearance can be as much a mask as an indication of the person inside.

I’d written some thoughts a few weeks earlier when a similar tragedy occurred closer to home. Knowing the anguish that precedes such an act, I bristle when people use words like ‘cowardly’ and ‘selfish’. Where do they find the audacity to judge something it’s been their good fortune never to know? What gives them the right to determine someone else’s breaking point?

The subject is a poignant one for me as it’s invariably a reminder of how things could have been for my loved ones, indeed how they may yet unfold. I don’t mean to sound morbid or melodramatic – for me every suicide is a warning of what can happen if I let go. I’m bipolar, as are others in my family. Statistics reflect we’re 20 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. You could say the suicidal impulse runs in my blood.

Depression is a great leveler; wealth, status, success – none is insurance against it. It dissolves self-worth like acid, William Styron called self-loathing ‘depression’s premier badge’. Whatever disparaging thing you can say about someone who took their own life, however many unflattering comparisons you make to illustrate their ‘failing’ (there’s always someone worse off, right?), trust me, they will have already owned it way before it occurred to you.

Because the reality is the people most likely to believe the stigma of mental illness are those in dire mental straits themselves – hence the mask. Mired in depression you lack the strength and objectivity to fight judgment. In fact, you’re actually more receptive to negative ideas, to anything that validates what you presently feel with every fibre of your being: that you’re ‘pathetic’, ‘a burden’, ‘worthless’. You cannot envisage an entire life lived under the weight of this knowledge, nor can you bear the shame every time someone else confirms what you’re so desperately hoping people don’t see.

Suicide is an impulsive act (not always a flick-of-the-switch impulse, more often the kind of slow burn that fuels a crush on someone you later feel indifferent about). Its an idea that becomes more powerful the more you think about it, and suicidal ideation is a hallmark of major depression. Many who contemplate it, when it comes down to the wire, just need a reason not to go ahead. It’s why so many lives have been saved by the installation of suicide hotline phones in sites where suicide is common. Some only ever face this dilemma once, others will wrestle periodically with it throughout their entire lives.

Most people think depression is like seeing the world through a grey veil, but actually, to the depressed person it’s like seeing the world without a veil, with nothing to obscure the cruelty, despair and pain that is such a huge part of human existence. This is depression’s trump card – the absolute conviction that a depressed state is reality and everything else illusion.

Others seem able to blot out this grim certainty but to you it’s now obvious you’re seeing everything clearly: happiness is just a break in the clouds, reality is misery and suffering, at least for you, with your knowledge of the truth. There’s no point in holding on anymore. Holding on for what? More of the same? It may be seen as selfish, but it’s also selfish of society to be so intolerant of imperfection.

Jonathan Swift must have thought the same when he said, “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived” I came across that quote when I was fifteen and immediately recognized the sentiment. For all those who say, ‘it’s not all doom and gloom, stop dwelling on the negative’, some studies suggest depressed individuals actually do see the world more realistically.

Depressive realism suggests positive self-deception is an integral part of most people’s outlook. Typically, people see themselves in unrealistically positive terms. They believe they have more control over their environment than they actually do, and they hold views about the future that are more positive than the evidence justifies. The ‘average’ person depends on these delusions beliefs for the self-esteem needed to get them through the day. The depressed person is better at recognizing situations over which they have little influence/control. Yet at the same time, this viewpoint is what distances them from the accepted reality. Anyone else see the irony in this?

The heartbreaking thing is that if you can just hold on, the desperation that drives you to suicide – like its polar opposite extreme joy – inevitably recedes and life continues on the other side, until the next time. But depression extracts all pleasure from existence, as though it were an eliminating antibody for every last cell capable of experiencing joy or even mere contentment. It fogs the mind and renders any ability to focus frustratingly impotent. The internal pain is a distraction from the world outside – it drowns it out, makes it impossible to be conscious of anything else. Exist like this for any protracted length of time and you grow deeply ambivalent about being alive. What is depression if not a slowed down way of being dead but conscious?

I have a talisman I carry in my heart. It came into my possession only recently, read somewhere and logged away in my brain, a seed that germinates whenever I become preoccupied with death and dying. It’s the knowledge that, if I killed myself, I would condemn my children to a lifetime of wondering why they weren’t enough to keep me here. I never want my children to think they aren’t enough – not for a day and certainly not for a lifetime. This is my reason to hang on. I hope it holds.

A good way to honour Robin Williams’ memory would be to make his death the turning point that finally wakes us all up to the reality of mental illness, but something tells me we’re a long way from that capacity for blanket compassion. Until then those who can’t hang on any longer will continue to be blamed for society’s inability to recognize itself in them.


If you are dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts you’re NOT alone. There are resources out there ready to help.

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. The world is deeply feeling the loss of an incredibly talented human being. Aisha, I hope you’re right that a blanket of compassion will envelop the world… but I also think that it’s a dream that will never be realized. Thank you (again) for your heartfelt and naked introspection that continually helps others understand the complex nature of depression.


  2. I used to believe that suicide was selfish and cowardly. Until, of course, I reached a stage in my life where it really did seem like the most logical solution for me. I didn’t have children to keep me hanging on in there but it was the thought of how my parents would feel that prevented me from actually putting an end to my life, plus the fear of pain. Thankfully, I hadn’t reached the point where those considerations take a back seat.

    As you say, the misery I was experiencing receded and I’m now more than satisfied with the way I feel about life most of the time but I can still remember enough about that period to know that I never want to be that low again. Most of the time it’s not difficult to steer clear of that pit but occasionally, I feel myself slipping and have to make a conscious effort to drag myself out of the hole before I go too deep.

    I’m glad you’ve found your talisman. Stay strong 🙂

  3. Brilliant writing, and thanks for opening up and letting us see how it is from your side. I want to read more and more about this subject; your words make so much sense. Relish all the good times with your children x

  4. Aisha, another beautifully written moving piece. Thank you. I have just posted a blog on the same subject but written from an entirely different angle, and decrying the commentary of some! Take good care of yourself!

  5. A brilliant post and it is good to read a piece that confronts things as they really are. It’s a very good point, and I hadn’t thought of it. Depression does indeed extract all pleasure – I have experienced that. I am still on medication but yes, it is good to have a talisman. I think mine is my husband and son. Thank you!

  6. I find the way that every one is dealing with the death of Robin Williams really confusing. Yes it is sad he is dead, yes it is sadder still that it was suicide, but it is his families sadness and their grief not mine.

    Yes I can empathise, but I can not grieve for a man I do not know,

    1. I felt the same when Diana died. I couldn’t understand this ‘outpouring of grief’ as the media kept calling it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, losing Robin Williams, at 63, to suicide, is a stark reminder that there’s no end to this battle I face as a result of my mindset. You spend a lifetime hoping the struggle will get easier, that you’ll find a way of existing more equitably with your invisible burden. It’s chilling that with all that was available to him, he still found himself in a place of such isolation that death was preferable. To think of him masking that to keep making people happy? I think we can all relate to the futility of that on some level.
      Tragedies like Robin Williams’ and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deaths hold a mirror up and we fear what we see reflected back. Some people we think of as strong because they give the impression they’ve really got their shit together. There’s a sadness in the realisation that it was an impression – they were indeed strong, but in a far deeper way than any of us ever imagined. We suddenly see we’ve been admiring the wrong thing, and that misplaced admiration prevented us from seeing reality.

  7. I agree, it is a good way to honor Robin Williams and his life’s work to spread the awareness about mental illnesses and how you really don’t know what is happening to the person, maybe right next to you.

  8. Such a thought provoking post. It seems that the most vibrant and funny people can sometimes be the most vulnerable. It’s so sad that there are people who can feel so alone and there are still those who think that a “cheer up” or “pull yourself together” will solve it. We really do need a better understanding of mental illness.

  9. This is a great post , the more people read on this topic the more they will gain insight into what depression is and the feelings that a person suffering from depression goes through.

  10. This is a great post and I love the photo you’ve chosen as your lead image. I just hope this tragic event opens more people’s eyes to the reality that some people are living with.

  11. I think it is very sad that he died in the way that he did and hopefully it will help raise awareness of this very real conditiion

  12. That’s the most lucidly written article I’ve read all week that touched on RW’s death-I’m so glad I clicked on the link that brought me here! I’m going to forward this on to many I know might benefit from reading it…It takes a lot of courage to want to end the misery that you experience, about as much courage as it takes to make the decision to continue living everyday- under the grey pall of depression. X

  13. I may have told you before that my wonderfully warm-hearted son-in-law is bipolar and that my daughter attempted suicide before she met him. Now she stays strong for him. They will never have nor want the anchor of children. I’m grateful for you that you do. Thanks for another enlightening piece, Aisha. I wish I had more time to visit. You make me realise how lucky I am to be able to see life ‘normally’.

  14. Powerful stuff, Aisha, and masterly writing. I’ve been remiss in terms of following your posts lately but will be avidly checking back from here on in. Keep doing what you do x

    1. Thanks Russell, nice to see you here. I know you’ve been busy reacquainting yourself with dear old Blighty and I’m enjoying reading the thoughts it’s given rise to and experiencing it vicariously through you. It’s been four years since I saw that ‘green and pleasant land.’ Thanks for dropping in x

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