It Happened to Me: I Was an Adult Thumb Sucker

I didn’t want to be a baby, but there was no way for me to stop doing the only thing in the world that soothed me; the one thing I could do, in a violent home, to comfort myself and feel safe.

Aug 2, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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I sucked my thumb from the day I was born until the week before my 26th birthday. 

For the first few years of my life, this wasn’t a problem -- not for me, anyway, though my parents minded it so much they painted my three-year-old thumbnail with a toxic varnish that burned when I put my thumb in my mouth, at which I screamed so furiously and with such duration that they abandoned that plan, and went back to simple constant scolding instead. 

When I got to pre-school, I discovered that thumb sucking was not the social norm. Other kids teased me: “Only babies suck their thumbs!” This was terrible news -- I didn’t want to be a baby, but there was no way for me to stop doing the only thing in the world that soothed me; the one thing I could do, in a violent home, to comfort myself and feel safe.

So I compromised: I stopped sucking my thumb in public. I became a four year old with something to hide. As far as the outside world was concerned, my thumbs were like everyone else’s, just there to help me make adorable fingerprint pictures of Thanksgiving turkeys at school.

But at home, or during any moment of privacy (riding in the car; in the bathroom at school; lying down in the nurse’s office with my coat over my head pretending to have a stomach ache, which was something I discovered in first grade and really grew to enjoy) my left thumb went automatically into my mouth. 

Rather than tapering off as I aged, my thumb sucking intensified, and I added a small swatch of cotton blanket to the ritual, rubbing it against my upper lip until it was soft and grey. My parents had split up, and I was moving from place to place with my mother and stepfamily, so nobody really had the energy to monitor my behavior. If anybody did notice and say something to me (“Stop that, you’re going to ruin your teeth!”), I just popped the thumb out and waited 30 seconds before the coast was clear again. 

Second grade. Third grade. Fourth grade. The thumb sucking was now a daily problem. I’d moved in with my dad, and he put his foot down: Mine was an unsanitary and deforming habit, and I was to quit immediately. I couldn’t even disagree. I did have to quit. By age nine, I’d learned that my habit was incredibly weird and shameful, and there was not a single other person my age who still sucked their thumb. Something was very wrong with me if I couldn’t live without doing it. 

My thumb sucking went totally underground, both in public and at home, unless I was in my room or the bathroom. I couldn’t be seen doing it at home, since I’d supposedly quit months ago. If anybody at school discovered my secret, I’d be eating lunch alone for the rest of my life.

At age 11, I was fitted with orthodontic braces, plunging me further into terrible, dark times, during which I could get only the very tip of my thumb into my mouth, and the swatch of cotton was called upon to take up the slack. When the braces finally came off a year later, and I was able to slide the thumb back into place against the hard palate where it always wanted to be, my whole body flooded with ecstasy.  

This is around the time -- sixth grade -- that I came up with the idea of hypnotherapy. A friend’s mother had used hypnosis to help her quit smoking. Maybe a hypnotist could help me quit sucking my thumb. I could find one in the Yellow Pages, I could save up to afford it. For some reason, I had $100 in my mind at the amount it would cost, so I determined that the minute I had saved $100, I’d go straight to a hypnotist. Having finally made a plan to quit relieved me so much, and I rewarded myself with as much thumb sucking as I wanted -- after all, I’d be quitting soon.

But somehow, that didn’t happen. Seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, and I still sucked my thumb. By now I’d stopped kidding myself. I was never going to be able to quit. The profound anxiety would kill me. Life would not be worth living.

Meanwhile, there was the shame of it; the knowledge that something in me was broken in a way that I could not allow others to discover; the need that plagued me all day long, from waking to sleeping and all the hours in between.

In ninth grade, I left home and lived temporarily in a youth shelter. Here I was surprised to see a few residents sucking their thumbs while watching TV in the lounge -- not ostentatiously, kind of casually off to the side. They’d just pop the thumb in for a while and nobody would say anything.

The first time I saw someone do it, I gaped in alarm on behalf of the girl sitting there on the couch, thumb in mouth, in public. But it didn’t seem to matter much -- maybe somebody looked askance at her for a second, but people were always looking askance at each other. Essentially, thumb sucking had become decriminalized at the shelter, and it could be tolerated at low levels.

So now I knew there were others like me. But knowing this didn’t make it better -- it just showed me what a sorry lot we were, and convinced me that I was doomed to suffer this habit for life.  Time after time, I’d decide to start training myself -- I’d go as long as I could without doing it, usually a few hours, struggling all the while against the magnetic pull that naturally drew the thumb into the mouth. Then I’d give in, practically faint from relief, and think, "Let’s never do that again." 

Tenth grade. Eleventh grade. Senior year of high school. I had boyfriends, some of them “serious,” and none of them ever knew. The first person who knew was my first love, Christian, who I met and moved in with when I was 17 and he was 23.

The first time he referred to it out loud -- “You know, you don’t have to hide sucking your thumb.” -- I turned on him with a furious, teary-eyed death stare, and he never mentioned it again. When we lay in bed together or watched TV, I pulled a tent of sheet over my mouth and nose, the same move that wasn’t fooling anybody back in grade school, and little sucking noises came out from under it. I couldn’t stop him from knowing about it, but I didn’t want him watching me do it. 

Age 19. Twenty. Twenty-one. I’d had a hundred bucks in my hands more than once, and at no time did I endeavor to use it to see a hypnotherapist. I had given up the idea of quitting my thumb; I needed my thumb more than ever, having suffered a major emotional meltdown that left me suicidal. I had another long-term relationship, and we handled it the way I had with Christian: I hid it poorly, he knew, and we never discussed it. My best girlfriends didn’t know. Had someone told me back then that I’d be writing about it in public now, I would have sent a cyborg to the future to kill me. 

Age 22. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. By this time, it was clear that I would live the rest of my life as a thumb sucker. My front teeth had been pushed back into their pre-braces positions, and my jaw receded, giving me a fleshy under-chin that would only make me uglier over time. I would never be able to have a child -- you can’t suck your thumb in front of your kid -- and this anguished me. I tried to picture myself at 40, sneaking off to the office bathroom to suck for a minute or two; at 60, my lower face caved in, drooling over my thumb as I watched TV alone. My future, unless a miracle happened, was to spend the rest of my life estranged from the rest of the world, always lying, always hiding. 

Age 25. I acquired a mean, critical boyfriend. I kept the thumb thing underground for as long as I could, but he heard the faint squeaks it made as I was lulling myself to sleep. We had one of the first explicit conversations I’d ever had about it, in which I told him about my childhood trauma, because I’d started to understand how the two were linked. Also, I wanted to him to go easy on me and not blame me for being such a crazy person. Hey, I had a hard life. My parents made me do it.

But he said he “didn’t mind” my thumb sucking; that it was “actually kind of sexy.” That attitude wore off quickly. Soon he was wrinkling his nose at me, suggesting various therapies, pressuring me to quit. A mutual “friend” made a veiled reference to my thumb sucking in conversation, and I knew he’d blabbed. I imagined them laughing together over my pathetic behavior, and I reeled, nauseated by shame. 

But at least he drove me to start seeing a shrink. And soon, for the first time since I was old enough to remember, I started to feel like I might possible get better. Within three months, I dumped the guy, found a better job, and cut way down on contact with my mother. I felt fantastic. I had momentum. I was finally ready to call a hypnotherapist.

The afternoon of my appointment, I felt light-headed and scared, and I nearly canceled. I couldn’t possibly quit sucking my thumb, I thought, despairing. This attempt was destined to be a failure. 

Instead, it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life so far. The therapist helped me to regress to my childhood, and at first I didn’t think it was working -- I was still aware of my surroundings, which was not how I thought it would go -- I thought you went into a trance and basically slept through it, then woke up cured.

Suddenly I felt a hand -- a real, literal, solid hand -- grab my throat, crushing my windpipe, and I started flailing, trying to alert the therapist, but I couldn’t breathe. I was back in my old bedroom, all those years ago; back inside a memory I’d buried as deep as I could, until here I was, living it again. The therapist talked me through it, and when my choked throat re-opened, I started to bawl. I’d never cried so hard before, nor since, and I’ve had plenty of practice crying. Something was being shaken loose from me, something that had been strangling me for a long time.

When the weeping subsided, I felt fantastic, like I’d had 12 orgasms, laughed for an hour, and then taken an amazing shit. I got myself together and left her office, and that was it: After nearly 26 years on the planet, I was done sucking my thumb. 

It wasn’t easy -- I had to fight the first few nights, lying on my side and placing my hands in the prayer position under my cheek, but I managed, and within weeks, it felt natural to sleep that way. I felt such joy and relief that I’d quit, along with a strange new feeling of not loathing myself quite as much. I would’ve loved to have been able to tell the people closest to me about my triumph in this lifelong struggle, but I had to celebrate alone. I needed to put a few more years between me and the thumb before I could admit what I’d been doing all this time. 

It’s been 18 years since that appointment, and I have remained thumb-free. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still plenty neurotic, and I nurse several other unsavory addictions, none of which I’ve been able to shed through hypnosis. I just don’t suck my thumb anymore. I don’t have any desire to. Whatever I let go of in that office, or whatever let go of me, is gone, and so is the shame went with it.