IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Never Stopped Sucking My Thumb

I am 32 years old and I habitually stick my thumb in my mouth.
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Nico Wood Kos
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I am 32 years old and I habitually stick my thumb in my mouth.

I have sucked my thumb since before I was born. Nestled within my mother's womb, as seen on the grainy ultrasound image, I had my thumb for comfort. This opposable digit was my first friend.

I have tried many times to give it up. I have tried a lot of tactics. I have searched "hypnotism to quit thumb-sucking" more than once. I have worn wool gloves to bed. I have beaten myself up; I have accepted it as no big deal; I have understood it as a mechanism of both comfort and shame. Sometimes it still serves me, sometimes not.

When I was six years old, my grandfather — my Papa — offered to pay me $20 if I went for a week without it. I flat-out failed. I'm not sure how hard I even tried. But when he confronted me at the end of the week, I lied. I can still remember him counting 20 singles into my little-girl palm. On my deathbed, I will still feel guilty about this, but looking back, I think he must have known.

I am 32 years old and I habitually stick my thumb in my mouth. It must mean I'm emotionally stunted. It must mean I'm insecure. I dissect myself in search of a reason, a root infraction, the moment something broke my ability to cope.

Naturally, I blame my parents. My mother loved me too much: dedicating herself so completely that she evaporated, letting everything except a vicarious life through her pretty daughter float up and away like a balloon. My father never loved me enough, walking away with a briskness in the direction of a whole new family unit, glancing backwards just often enough to lead me on.

When it came to my thumb-sucking, my mother (always a pushover) accepted it or ignored it, or both. My father (always a hardass) shamed me or punished me, or both.

It has always been a comfort, so simple and so literally ready-to-hand. It doesn't cost money. It doesn't take me out of my head. It doesn't hurt anybody. The most benign addiction imaginable, sucking my thumb doesn't derail my life. It doesn't harm the fabric of my relationships.

Nonetheless, I feel it's time to stop.

Recently, I became a mother myself, and I know the inevitable blame is not far behind.

I don't want my daughter to suck her thumb. I don't want my daughter to tell people that Mommy sucks her thumb. I don't want my daughter to judge me for sucking my thumb.

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People who have known me for years and years have never noticed that I do it. Friends with whom I have shared a movie or a bed have been inches away and not realized. It's like that dance instructor who kept her missing arm a secret for a decade. People only see what they want to see, or they only notice what they're used to. I am adept housing this secret idiosyncrasy, but I can't keep it hidden from my girl.

As I reflect on this pattern, this habitual action of comfort and shame, I continue to ask myself why. 

Why do I still blame my parents? 

Why don't I say what I mean? 

Why can't I stop sucking my thumb?

I have always known that sucking my thumb helps me to cope. It relaxes me and helps me feel cozy. It enables me to deal with pain. But lately, I think it has been serving an altogether different purpose: sucking my thumb keeps me quiet.

When my thumb is inserted, I cannot speak. When I suck my thumb, I shut myself up.

I don't deal much in connection or authenticity. I live far away from everyone, but I don't call. I don't let people know what's going on with me. I reflect a cool sheen of put-together appeal. I almost never tell all of the truth. I am afraid of what the world thinks about me.

Forget about the eyes — I think the mouth is the window to the soul. It is a bona fide entry point. It crosses the internal/external brink. It is where we nourish, where we consume, and where we express. It is where we eat, where we speak, and where we breathe. And I spend most of the time keeping my soul-window locked.

What would happen if I pulled the plug and let my words flow freely? What would change if I found the courage to live my authentic self? How would it feel? What if I faced my fear, and my shame, and told the truth?

Here I am, speaking my truth, broadcasting my post shameful habit. Maybe it can set me free?

Old habits continue to die hard. Old comforts can sometimes leave scars. Big changes take effort, and self-empathy, and time.

I know that I may fail. But now is the time to try.