Biscuits Before Breakfast: Recovery in Microcosm
A little madeleine moment with lessons to teach about healthy eating
Posted Sep 30, 2016
Driving home in the dark, my partner offered me a biscuit. It was the end of a family holiday, and drifting well past dinnertime. He passed me other things to eat, too, but it was the Rich Teas that made for my own little madeleine moment – less poetically charged than Proust’s, but similarly laden with memory and an awareness of how totally time changes everything.
Despite the name, a Rich Tea is not an imposing kind of biscuit. It’s light to the touch and not very sweet, and it has its name and a lot of small dots printed into its top surface. It’s slightly nutty in taste, very crumbly, almost powdery in texture, and it’s designed to go soggy but hold its shape when dunked in milky tea. I’ve never particularly liked doing that with it, though my strongest memories of it are all with tea.
As in the case of the Proustian protagonist who dips his madeleine into linden blossom tea and is assailed by a potent sense that there is something important here to be remembered, so in my case there was both an immediate feeling that this eating experience meant something, and also quite some voluntary effort at remembering alongside the involuntary jolt. Cognitively speaking, I was in a similarly conducive state to wide-ranging remembering as Marcel (if you're interested, here's an academic article of mine on the madeleine episode [Troscianko, 2013]): I hadn’t had the food in question for years, though it had once been very familiar; the attention I was devoting to driving left the mental space to think of other things; and being away with my family had stirred up other memories of times past. Our olfactory sense has a particularly direct neural link to emotional memory (Herz and Schooler, 2002), such that even though flavours (like smells) may be hard to pin down in memory, they can have great emotional potency.
Proust's madeleine episode is always referred to as the ultimate example of involuntary memory - memory that comes unbidden through some chance-encountered stimulus. But in fact Marcel goes through long-drawn-out efforts at remembering what the madeleine stirs up in him, and when he does work out what that is, it's by a mechanism more closely associated with voluntary recall: it starts at the level of the general event, i.e. the event repeated with variation during a distinct period of time (like going to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon when you were a teenager).
Although the process of remembering didn't take long for me, it worked in the same way, by grasping hold of an oft-repeated habit. The era I remembered was the era when the weight-restoration phase of my recovery from anorexia was over, and I was feeling physically better than for a decade, but was still finding my way with hesitation, sometimes unease, through the complexities of not being starved any more. The time which came most powerfully to mind, though my Rich Tea era covered at least a year or so, was the summer of 2010, when I wrote blog posts about constructing a character for oneself after anorexia is departed, and about learning to relax once it has loosened its stranglehold. Having Rich Teas with my morning tea was one of the small but significant supports for those kinds of progress.
In that post on constructing a character, I included this picture of myself drinking morning tea in Switzerland, with a mountain backdrop. Not quite visible in shot, or possibly just eaten, was a Rich Tea. I had brought a packet from home so that in the camper-van every morning we could carry on my home routine of two biscuits with tea before breakfast. I don’t remember when the routine began, or whether my partner or I initiated it, but for many months it added a literal and metaphorical sweetness to the half-hour or so after waking.
The most direct role of the Rich Tea in that critical moment in my life was as an encapsulation and extension of a practical innovation on which health depended: rejecting anorexia’s drive to defer, ever further, the pleasure of eating. One of the milestones I struggled most with during my course of cognitive behavioral therapy was, beyond the fragile early stages where eating immediately was non-negotiable, resisting the temptation to have breakfast just a little later, so I could get a little bit of something useful done beforehand, feel a little hungrier for it, appreciate it more…
The Rich Tea offered a way of enjoying in leisurely fashion the cups of tea in bed which I love starting my day with, but not allowing them to be a means of putting off eating. It turned the teas from an aperitif into a starter, if you like. Quite apart from the physical benefits of breaking the nocturnal fast a little sooner, it was a gentle way of reminding myself, in the soft early time before complete wakefulness, that it’s OK and good to eat before doing anything else to earn or heighten the pleasure. Gratification need not always be delayed; it is OK and good to have it now.
Taken out of context, that sentence could be taken to encapsulate a lot of what is wrong with the society we live in: that in all kinds of respects delaying gratification has become a surreal impossibility: I want it all, perfectly, now. But the monumental importance of context is one of the two main points I think my Rich Teas illustrate. The habit of eating two sweet biscuits as a preamble to breakfast every day would not, for most people at most times in their life, be what we’d call a healthy habit. But for me then, it was the absolutely most healthy way for me to start my day. It was a small daily act of self-nourishment, and a social ritual too: something to share with my partner, and with my father and his partner on that Swiss summer holiday in the cow-spotted camper-van.
Realising that there is no single definition of healthiness, or even healthy eating, is one of the many challenges of early recovery from an eating disorder. There are many strident calls for us to subscribe to rigid notions of good health in what we eat, whether it’s through ‘eating clean’ (a nonsense I deconstructed in this post) or some more coherent philosophy. But much of the intensive first phase of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder depends on repeating to oneself, in multiple contexts, the protective mantra: this does not apply to me. Everyone else’s ‘healthy’ is not mine right now. Then, of course, one has to create one’s own alternative version of healthiness, and mine involved those funny little biscuits, every morning until I stopped needing them.
This also has implications for the time course of recovery. A reader recently mentioned in a message to me that she was trying to develop a relationship with food that would stand her in good stead for decades to come. In one sense this is an obviously admirable ambition, but in another it was not, I thought, quite the right time for it: she was in the very early stages of acknowledging her illness and starting to do something about it. What I thought she needed most was not to develop a new way of living that would be her template for the extended future, but in an intensive way to heal the damage that had been done.
It’s terribly easy to let ourselves be cowed by the dictates of media-filtered dietary advice fuelled by hysteria about obesity into rejecting the very things that will, in these phases, help make us healthy more effectively than anything else, even though they might not be the basis of healthy eating in the longer term. Maybe, when I mentioned morning tea in that post about character, I didn’t mention the biscuit thing because I thought it sounded slightly weird, slightly overkill. I remember my father being a mixture of pleased and bemused when I first offered him the packet – but from then on it was a communal thing that in one more small way helped my recovery be a shared endeavour. It was necessary in that period of my life to actively repair damage, physical and psychological, so that later - now - I can not do those things any more. They helped create the good health that now I need only to maintain.
So whatever are the little rituals that for you might make the difference between doing recovery by numbers and committing to it wholeheartedly, don’t be afraid of them. Even if other people may think you're being a bit strange, or express concern that maybe you're going 'too far in the other direction', trust in yourself to know what you need.
The time will come when biscuits before breakfast, or whatever forms your own recovery-specific version of health eating takes, are no longer something you want or need. But while they are, give them to yourself. Your return to good health depends on not expecting to be normally healthy instantly, but instead letting yourself act in the ways that are right for you, right now.
Herz, R.S., and Schooler, J.W. (2002). A naturalistic study of autobiographical memories evoked by olfactory and visual cues: Testing the Proustian hypothesis. American Journal of Psychology, 115(1), 21-32. Direct PDF download here.
Troscianko, E.T. (2013). Cognitive realism and memory in Proust’s madeleine episode. Memory Studies, 6(4), 437-456. Full text here.