There is much speculation of the nature of the illness. Winchester himself, on discovering DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) IV many years later while writing The Professor and the Madman, diagnosed himself with a "dissociative disorder." A professor of psychiatry at Stonybrook who is a proponent of ECT, based on correspondence with Winchester, has diagnosed him with "simple melancholia," an illness he recognizes is not in the DSM and attributes to "abnormal hormone functions." A Psychology Today post entitled What Did Simon Winchester Really Have?" refers to "psychotic episodes."
In his introduction to the e-book Winchester explains his reasons for writing about this subject so many years later. He describes living with feelings of shame, and, following the death last year of both his parents, a desire to "come clean." He writes;
My mother and father, tough old greatest-generation Britons who lived well on into their nineties, belonged to a time and class that disapproved mightily of any kind of mental infirmity...Stuff and nonsense, my father would bellow on hearing of my troubles. Damn tomfoolery was his only diagnosis, Pull yourself together his only prescription.
I wonder if it is this very telling of the story, including his incomplete yet meaningful connection with his parents towards the end of their lives that will prove to be the “cure.” This telling of stories as cure is well known within the discipline of psychoanalysis. I describe it in a previous post Childhood Trauma: Stories that Must Be Told:
French psychoanalysts Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudilliere have an adage on the cover of their book, History Beyond Trauma; "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent." They argue that personal stories of war and societal trauma, if not told in words, emerge as symptoms, sometimes as mental illness, sometimes in subsequent generations.Of course I do not know if Winchester's family history had any relation to his illness. Yet I cant help but wonder, if this silence, this "British reserve" had a role to play, both in the illness and also in Winchester's chosen profession as a writer, or "storyteller." Perhaps it is his storytelling that was/is the cure.
I have great respect for the complexity of the kidney. But the way the proximal and distal tubules transport ions is likely not related to, for example, the owner of those kidneys' relationship with his mother, or his father's survival of the Holocaust. But the function of his brain/mind most certainly is.