In future, I won't tell friends I feel awful; I'll say I'm suffering a sadness too deep for words

I'm increasingly concerned about my callous attitude towards other people's avowed depression. I'm as sympathetic as the next person when it comes to dealing with such everyday pathologies as incipient alcoholism and calamitous overeating, but put me in the same room as someone who confesses to being "strangely depressed" and I'm out in the hall looking for my hat and coat before you can say ontological insecurity.

My last unfortunate experience involved James Copping. James and I have worked together for the past 15 years on a whole series of social psychological experiments dealing with the effect of variable eye contact upon personal conformity (Copping and Taylor, BJSP vol 23, 1998, pp37-39). But one morning last spring, as I was on my way to the social psychology laboratory to meet James and another group of poorly paid but credit-hungry experimental subjects, I was handed a note asking me to ring James at home.

"I'm terribly sorry, Laurie, but I just can't get out of bed." "How d'you mean, you can't get out of bed?" "Well, I woke up this morning and everything seemed completely grey and lifeless. I couldn't see the point of anything any more. I'm just lying here crying. Although my eyes are dry." I've done my best to reproduce James's exact words because they rather get to the nub of my problem with depression. Whereas alcoholics are recognisable by the banal manner in which they alternate binges with tearful demands for forgiveness, and serious overeaters can be readily identified by the crumbs on their lower lip, would-be depressives seem unable to tell you that life isn't worth living without also breaking into a pseudo-Laingian meditation on their predicament.

James is but one example. Four weeks ago, I met Henny Finkelmann again. She and I had made some programmes for the BBC World Service in the late-1990s in which we interviewed minor celebrities about their favourite childhood reading. It was not a particularly taxing job. As long as the contributors came up with something other than Swallows and Amazons or Wind in the Willows, and clarified any distinctively British references (eg, "Baby Spice, the smallest member of the celebrated all-girl singing combo"), then it was more or less plain sailing.

But when I bumped into Henny over a tall latte in Soho before Christmas, she told me that she had pulled out of all her radio work because she'd been overcome by a terrible sense of its pointlessness. "I'd go into the studio and find that I was simply staring blankly at the microphone. I had no more words left in me. I was all used up. Worn out. As though someone had vacuumed up my entire identity."

I've come to believe that wannabe depressives (I'm not, of course, insensitive to full-blown psychotic symptoms) now feel the need to over-elaborate their condition in order to dissuade others from suggesting that they snap out of it or seriously consider the validity of the phrase "It's only rock'n'roll".

In the face of so much extravagant misery (rather than good old-fashioned unhappiness), I may be forced into overdrive myself. Even now, I'm waiting for a call from Geoff and the friendly inquiry "How are you?" In normal circumstances, this would elicit the news that I was "fucking awful" and that, if I had to spend any more time teaching my present bunch of students, I might decide to look for a more stimulating occupation - such as chlorinating swimming pools. But this time, it will be different. "To tell the truth, Geoff," I'll say, "I'm suffering from a sadness too deep for tears."

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all