I know that if ultrasound scans had been available when mother was pregnant with me there would be a fuzzy picture of pre-natal me with my right thumb in my mouth. How do I know? Because that same thumb spent most of the first eight years of life in my mouth. I found great solace in sucking that thumb. Whenever life presented me with chaos or pain or discomfort (anything negative!), I stuck my thumb in my mouth and things got better. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, the thumb was always available. It always soothed.
But there was one problem. Mother didn’t like it at all. She tried everything to get me to stop. She coaxed. She belittled. She coated my thumb with foul-tasting ointment. She threatened. She bandaged my hand. She scared me with stories of ugly buck teeth and the importance of a beautiful smile. Despite all her lecturing, I had trouble understanding the tension my thumb sucking caused. I could see no way that it hurt her or any one else in the family; so why would she deny me something so wonderful? Why did it make me so unacceptable to her? No one else (except an uncle who made fun of me) seemed to care whether I sucked it or not.
But the message was clear. As much as I loved sucking my thumb, I wanted my mother’s approval even more. So I tried to stop. During the day when the thumb found its way into my mouth, I’d force thoughts of the germs Mother had told me about to parade in my mind. But by the time the thoughts of debilitating disease, intestinal worms, and chronic pain became revolting enough to male me remove the thumb, I rationalized that the germs were washed off and in my stomach anyway. I couldn’t do a thing about it now so I might as well enjoy.
Other times I’d concentrate on how happy she would be if I stopped, and how happy I would be to make her so happy. But then I’d rationalize that what she didn’t know couldn’t make her unhappy and since she wasn’t there at the moment to watch, it didn’t matter. One of us might as well be happy.
Night time was the most difficult. My thumb possessed sedative power. But I tried so hard to sleep without it. I’d put my hand under my pillow to keep it away from my mouth, but it seemed to grow bigger and bigger and the weight of my head on the thumb made it throb. Some nights I swear there was an invisible magnetic force pulling that thumb into my mouth and it was all I could do to resist it. I’d lie awake for what seemed like hours resisting the pull until it finally found its way into my mouth and I’d sleep peacefully. I tried sleeping with mittens on but they came off easily. Despite how it burned my mouth, I sucked off the foul-tasting ointment that Mother said would do the trick. I still don’t understand how I managed to do that while the benign taste of lima beans caused me to dry heave. In short, despite resolve after resolve, the thumb always found its way into my mouth.
After years of sucking, I bore the mark of the thumb sucker–the dreaded buck teeth. Large gaps bordered my two front teeth so that every time I smiled my lower lip slipped behind my two front teeth. Now besides knowing that I was a great disappointment to my mother, I became aware that I was a joke to neighbors and relatives. One Halloween I wore what I thought was a costume in which no one would recognize me. After all, the only thing that showed were my eyes and my mouth. But every house I went to people called me by name. Exasperated by the fact that I hadn’t fooled anyone, I finally asked one lady how she knew it was me. “You can’t miss those Bugs Bunny teeth,” she said with a laugh that I can still hear.
By then stopping the thumb sucking was not just a matter of pleasing Mother or about being laughed at. It was about what I was. By the time I reached eight years of age, I had defined myself as a person who could not keep a promise to myself or to my Mother no matter how intensely I wanted it. I knew I was a hopeless failure. And if I couldn’t please or win the approval of my very own family, how could anyone else like me? The desperation of these thoughts corroded other areas of my life until I knew that somehow, someway I had to conquer the habit or live forever in thumb-sucking hell.
Mother had tried everything. I had tried everything. Or so I thought. Finally one night as I knelt to say my prayers I poured out my heart to my Father in Heaven. I told him I couldn’t stop sucking my thumb. I told him that because I sucked my thumb no one could ever love me. Would He please help me? I begged. I pleaded. I repeated all the ills my mother had told me occurred because of thumb sucking. I told Him I didn’t want any more of those things to happen to me. Please would He help me stop sucking my thumb.
There was no immediate miracle. That night the thumb still found its way into my mouth, but it didn’t taste as good. The next night I prayed again and each succeeding night I repeated my request. And after many nights of praying, I finally managed to fall asleep without the thumb in my mouth. It was a marvelous realization. I could do it!
But the next night the thumb went right back to its accustomed place and we started over. Begging. Pleading. Hoping. I don’t know how long it took, but it was weeks not days before I finally put the habit behind me. But I did put it behind me. The thumb has never been in my mouth since that day. I had done something very, very difficult to do. But I knew I hadn’t done it alone. My Father in Heaven had given me strength that I alone didn’t have. He had empowered me so that over time the horrible habit was broken. And with His help I had conquered.
It would be many years later–when I was fifteen–that I finally got braces to correct the buck teeth. My sixth grade picture captures the Bugs Bunny teeth in all their glory, but there is no record of all the jokes and remarks I had to endure. I had overcome the thumb sucking, but I still had to live with the consequences. People still made fun of me and every time I looked in a mirror or saw a picture of myself, I was reminded of how ugly I was. It took me years to gain any sense of confidence, but the irony is that the confidence finally came from the same source as the lack of it.
Ever since that experience, when I come up against a problem or challenge that looks too difficult, I remember how very hard it was to keep that thumb out of my mouth. “I’ve encountered a thumb sucker,” I tell myself and then I pray and work and pray some more until I’ve met the challenge.
I used to wish I had been born one of those people who are beautiful and wonderful and without problems like sucking a thumb. You know the kind of person I mean–people that life flows to without much effort on their part, people that can do everything the first time they try. But at this stage of life I’m grateful I’m not one of those people because I don’t know how they ever learn to rely upon the Lord. After all, reliance is the first step in our spiritual growth. First we rely upon the Lord, then we grow close to Him, and finally we become like Him. That’s one thing Mother didn’t tell me. Thumb sucking can also be a blessing.