Humor & Depression

Robin Williams’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame surrounded by flowers & tributes left by fans on August 12, 2014
Image courtesy of
Robin Williams' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame surrounded by flowers & tributes left by fans on August 12, 2014
Image courtesy of


[dropcap]I[/dropcap] guess this qualifies as one of those #ThrowbackThursday things I keep seeing floating around social media, but it’s not like me to be on time anyway so… what the hell.

Between the ages of twelve and thirteen I discovered being funny made switching schools easier. To lessen the awkwardness of being ‘the new girl’ I became a bit of a practical joker, someone who always had a ready smile and a jokey reply – even my school reports reflect it with one teacher describing me as “effervescent”. The detentions I earned were outnumbered by the friends I made.

Humour bridges language and culture, and speaks directly to the soul. Sadly wit is no indication of happiness, as we’re all currently too aware. I found this poem I wrote back then that could have applied to the comic luminary we lost earlier this week.


The Comedian

To carry on when you’re sad and tired.
To keep them laughing as you try to hide

the grief that’s spilling out inside.
The comedian.

Straight ahead, up-front, in full view.
Anxious, depressed, it’s all you can do
to stop them seeing any clue.
The comedian.

To bear torture and pain with incredible duration.
To laugh and smile before the nation.
You’ve got to go on, it’s your occupation.
The comedian.

But when things are good then it’s okay,
you’ll laugh and smile anyway,
and their applause just makes your day.
The comedian.

AA May ’89

It’s clunky and basic, and lots of people mercilessly deride their early attempts at poetry –  often undertaken at a time when hormones were more in control of the pen than sensibility – but I’m grateful for its insight into the creative mind of a younger self who must’ve always recognised not only the interplay between humor and depression, but on some level, the value of spilling her thoughts onto the page. I’m a world away now from that twelve-year-old girl, but essentially still the same.


“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Robin Williams

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. For those who have never experienced depression do not understand it, for those who have experienced it understand that sometimes there are no answers but just knowing someone is there can mean everything.

  2. I can really relate to that poem. So many people hide certain things through laughter, which is why robin williams suicide is such a shock x

  3. I like your loving attitude toward your younger self. Isn’t it fun when we realize that our current and younger selves are “essentially still the same”?

    With so much talk about comedy being a mask for pain, I think we should raise a cheer for the gift of comedy. Not everyone can do it. When I was the new girl, I didn’t know how to be funny, so I didn’t say much for a while.

    1. Sometimes I’d give anything just to be able to not smile – old habits/disguises are hard to shake off. But you’re right – in all this bleakness we should be grateful for the sunshine of a smile.

  4. Amazing that you wrote that poem at age twelve. There are many other examples of great comic actors (I can think of one or two English ones) who suffered from depression and often had problems with addictions too. Comedy is, indeed, a mask. Thank you so much – I found that Robin Williams quote too, and just love it. It is so true. But it’s often that little spark that keeps us going…

    1. I wrote a few between the ages of 12 to 15. It led my mother (a published poet herself) to give me a beautiful dark green notebook with a gold-coloured bas-relief border on the front cover to collect them in. I neatly copied all my poems into it in the sloping, elongated hand that was my natural style before I began experimenting with a rounded, squat print that featured double-storey ‘a’s and quirky descenders (isn’t it funny the things we use to navigate the timelines of our lives?).
      John Cleese, the late Spike Milligan and Stephen Fry are English comic actors with mental illness who spring immediately to mind. The comedy circuit is rife with it, and according to the findings of a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year, successful comedians display high levels of psychotic characteristics.
      I nearly snuffed my little spark out – I’m currently coaxing it back to life.

      1. Yes, another British comedian, Tony Hancock, committed suicide and left a note saying: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.” I remember him so well (childhood memories)…he battled alcoholism. That’s funny about your hand-writing. When I was the same age, I rebelled against that sloping script and did much the same. I still write in that print with the funny “a”s to this day! Several American comedians too come to mind…Richard Pryor attempted suicide and also Martin Lawrence has had his problems. The list is a long one, isn’t it.

  5. How wonderfully appropriate with the news this week. Fantastic post. It shows that people can hide behind masks and suffer the effects at any age or at any level of fame. Sometimes it takes the big news stories like the one this week to make us pause and remember/realise.

    1. Though I know your sentiment is well-intentioned, I think it’s important not to confuse regret at the loss of exceptional ability with the tragedy of any sentient being reaching such a low as to feel it would be better not to exist, and acting upon it. That lives can be lost to such a misplaced sense of isolated worthlessness in our ‘civilised’ society is the real shame here – it’s just unfortunate that it takes a ‘high-visibility’ incident to remind people of the seriousness and prevalence of mental illness. And even more shameful that it will be largely forgotten by this time next month.

  6. The people who don’t know my husband very well don’t understand his humour. They often think he’s being inappropriate because of some of serious issues he jokes about.
    What they don’t know is that he’s used humour for the majority of his adult life to help him cope with his depression.
    He’s attempted suicide twice (he doesn’t mind me talking about this openly with anyone so I’m not breaking a confidence) and has been admitted to the mental health ward on a number of occasions.
    Thankfully, for the last 9 years he’s not had to have anti depressants but I can tell when it’s a day that he’s having a battle with the depression. He’s doing brilliantly keeping it at bay and I’m so proud of him.
    When I asked my husband how he could have even thought about leaving his wife and 6 children (this all happened before we met) he said that in his mind, they wouldn’t mind because they’d be better off without him. The thought of him feeling like that breaks my heart and I think that’s why I was upset more than I’ve ever been at someone dying who I didn’t even know. To think of him feeling so bad he had to end it makes me cry for him and his family.

    1. He’s lucky to have such an understanding partner. The ripple-effect of depression means it affects family members too.
      I think, in the same way any parent reacts to hearing of suffering inflicted on a child, anyone who has had close experience of depression – whether directly or indirectly – can’t help but be affected by the suffering of someone in its grip.
      I wish you and your family love and strength and thank you for sharing this with us.

  7. I see a lot of myself in people like this. I hide behind humour so that people don’t see that I’m upset about something, as I feel like I have to maintain the appearance of the clown in front of my friends!

    Sara | This Girl Loves

  8. It such a tragic loss that a beloved actor known for making people happy ended his life so tragically. It goes to show that you never fully know people’s personal battles. Lovely thoughtful poem x

  9. Tragedy like this always makes me think about what I have and what is important to me and helps sort out the priorities. It is very sad that someone so loved by millions was so lonely.

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