I have a confession to make: I am a 33 year old thumbsucker. I am also a mother, a successful professional, an author, a counselor, an artist, a great friend, and a loving partner. Somehow, despite me being a complex human being with many different experiences, challenges and accomplishments, most of which I have no trouble standing on stage and talking to strangers about, my thumbsucking has always been a secret and shameful habit I haven’t shared with the public…until now.
Honestly, there is nothing I love more than sucking my thumb. I love the way my flesh feels in my mouth, the comforting soothing feeling and peaceful rhythmic motions of my lips as I lull myself to sleep each night. This was after all my first addiction. I would have many others: Nail biting. Coffee. Cigarettes. Drugs. Alcohol. Exercise. Love. Pain, but thumbsucking was the one addiction I have never wanted to give up. The one habit that actually felt healthy for me.
It is estimated that 1 in 10 adults still suck their thumbs. That’s about 10% of the population. Most of these adults are successful individuals with adult responsibilities and mature lives and their thumbsucking behavior is often done only in the comfort of their homes. While most thumbsuckers lose their habit by age 8, due to growing out of it, social ridicule, parental pressure, dental advice or some not so gentle methods such as covering the preferred thumb with hot sauce or soap, there are still millions of adults, like myself, who have continued to return to their classic method of self soothing and comfort.
We typically associate thumbsucking with babies and toddlers. Research has shown thumbsucking can even first occur in the womb. A reflex created to help with breastfeeding and attachment. The internal need for nourishment. And when children enter a world full of uncertainty, anxiety and adversity, the need for comfort and soothing becomes a necessary part of healthy development. For some children, they needn’t have to look farther than their own hands, and viola! Instant comfort. The sucking motion reminds us of our basic need to be cared for and nurtured. To feel full and “fed” even when the world around us becomes stressful and unreliable. Thumbsucking in childhood and infancy is viewed as a normal part of development and the habit typically seen as unharmful by pediatricians. In fact, there is much research to suggest that babies who are thumbsuckers are not only more emotionally grounded, but less likely to develop allergies due to their thumbsucking habits! (and I can attest to this, because I have no allergies!)
So why do we view adult thumbsuckers as odd or strange for not outgrowing this behavior and thumbsucking as a shameful habit? Should we?
“Baby Baby sucks her thumb, and that’s what Yoooou do too!”
I’ll never forget the girls who ran up to me during my day camp sleepover, chanting this over and over again. I was 6 years old, and not aware that sucking my thumb in public would be seen as weird by other children. I kept looking around over my shoulder, convinced they were chanting at someone else who stood behind me. I wasn’t hurting anyone after all….why did they care if I sucked my thumb or not?
It was also around this time that my father started bringing up the fact that I needed to stop sucking my thumb as if my whole life would be ruined if it continued. “You look ridiculous!” he would say “Get your hand out of your mouth!” This was actually one of the kinder exchanges we had growing up. A part of me thinks that I continued with my thumbsucking because I grew up in an abusive environment, which made my habit even more compulsory, but even so it seemed the more I felt shamed by those around me, the more I needed to find methods to cope with that shame.
Shame and addiction are incredibly intertwined. In my work with drug and alcohol addicts, I have been witness to how shame affects us to the cores of our beings. The feeling that there is something “wrong” with us inherently that no matter what we do, can never be cured. That there is a “bad” part of us that needs to be hidden. That space can quickly become a black hole that is never full, and always hungry.
I learned to hide my thumbsucking. Covering my face under blankets so no one would see that despite how “happy” I appeared as a child, there was this part of me that would always need to be comforted. A part of me that needed to feel safe at all times. In my young adulthood I reserved my “thumb time” for the couch at home when I was certain no one else was in the room and never in front of friends or anyone who might judge me based on this “weakness”. I was after all an A student, and very “mature” for my age. How could someone who seemed so “grown up” still need something so childish?
In my late adolescence I discovered other addictions that would eventually replace my thumbsucking and open up that hungry black hole inside of me: Alcohol, eating disorders and drugs. For 10 years I dabbled in these new habits until the dabbling became daily use. Every night was a binge and every day an attempt to “burn off” the calories I had consumed the night before. I didn’t suck my thumb much anymore, banishing it under my pillow every night and slapping myself in my own face whenever it found its way into my mouth. Abusive relationships entered my life and the hole within me got larger, as I made room for more men whose ridicule reminded me of my father’s. Like I did when I was in middle school, I attempted to hide these habits under smiles and highly functional behavior while everything within me ruptured. Hangover after hangover, eventually I replaced my thumb with other substances to help me sleep at night.
At age 27 I attempted suicide by taking a handful of sleep aids, and although I cursed the sun the next day when I woke up, this event was the first step in leading me on a path of self acceptance and unraveling the shame I held within myself for my life, my past and my need for self care.
For so long I had been filling myself up with other things when what I needed was to feel comfortable in my own skin.
That hiding my experiences only exacerbated the shame, making it harder to live with. Hiding addictions became natural as hiding the parts of myself I didn’t want others to see. The parts that I labeled “weak” “childish” and “infantile”. I realize now that there are so many different aspects of myself, some of which I enjoy, and some which I do not, but none of them are “good” or “bad”. That I can be a thumbsucker and an adult and still be loved and accepted for who I am.
We need to find the core of the shame within us. Which experiences taught us we were not worthy? That who we are was not enough? That we somehow needed to change to fit in to be accepted or even to be loved by those around us. We want to be heroes, but we are flawed, never realizing that the flaws are what make us heroes in the first place.
It was about 3 years after my suicide attempt that I became ready to deal with my shame. Ready to leave my other addictions behind and return to the one that had comforted me for all of my life. A night of thumbsucking beats any night of binge drinking, hands down. It’s safe, it hurts no one and offers little to no risk (although your dentist and my slight overbite may disagree). As I move towards loving myself in all of my weaknesses, my flaws, and my resilience, in this way I see my thumbsucking not as infantile, but as the first way I taught myself that I already and have always had everything within me to feel whole and accepted without shame or judgement. I can finally ask authentically for what I need and recognize that my needs are important.
This is what thumbsucking has brought me.
Thumbsucking is not something I’ve ever had to give up. It is just another part of myself that I am choosing to accept and love. It has helped me acknowledge when I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and allowed me to stay in that space, sit with those feelings, and feel grounded. It has helped me on bad days, when I don’t have any other tool to relax me. It had guided me to other forms of self care such as art therapy, counseling and meditation. It has shown me that I am worth taking care of and that most importantly, I am worthy of that care. Exactly as I am.
Thumbs and all.