Adventures of an Adult Thumb-Sucker

And the secret shame we all carry.

Someone sucking their thumb
(Image credit: Marie Claire)

The patron saint of adult thumb-suckers is a 65-year-old Long Island salesman who looks strikingly like Hunter S. Thompson, down to the tinted aviator sunglasses and bald spot.

He's asked that I call him by his middle name, Lazur. He doesn't want to use his first name because he imagines his professional clients may stop doing business with a grown man who sucks his thumb.

On a Sunday night in early spring, Lazur sat in a booth at his favorite Nassau County diner sipping a chocolate milk ("light on the chocolate with a side of chocolate syrup"), his calloused thumb pressed against the sweating glass.

He sucks his thumb an average of two hours a day: in bed, on the couch, at his desk, and especially while driving. His most important prerequisite for a new truck is an armrest at just the right height for resting an elbow in thumb-to-mouth position.

Aside from his interests in business, astronomy, historical events, and bicycling, Lazur's real passion is the website he founded in 1999:

The site is crude and rudimentary. It's written in garish neon greens, yellows, and pinks and looks like it hasn't been updated since it launched. But its message is a salve for anyone who has tentatively typed queries like "thumb-sucking" and "adult" and "Am I the only thumb-sucking adult in the universe" into a search engine.

"And Then Thumb," the frequently trafficked content page, shares statistics, surveys, articles, and thumb-sucking instances in mass media. The bulletin board and chat room had around 1,700 members worldwide when he closed them down years ago.

Lazur's aim is to legitimize thumb-sucking in a world that infantilizes or shuns adults who do it. And after more than fifteen years online, he is trying to figure out how to gather adult thumb-suckers ("ATS") for real-life meetings. His MeetUp group has encountered a hitch though: almost all the members continue to keep their habit a deep secret.

I began hiding my thumb-sucking around the age of five—under covers, in closets, in bathroom stalls.

The shame and loathing began later—in kindergarten and first grade in a well-heeled New Jersey suburb. I was a chubby little girl in hiding, squeezing in her stomach, thumb in her mouth whenever and wherever she could take cover. Was it the thumb-sucking that made me retreat into young alienation and rebellion? Or was it my own alienation that caused me to continue sucking my thumb, a way of comforting myself through the awkwardness of elementary school, the solitude of middle school, the angst of high-school years? As a teenager, my favorite activity was curling up with a book, facing a wall, thumb in. A quick cure for any sadness or despair was finding a private place to get in position. I never spoke about it to friends or family. It was my shame and denial. I began hiding my thumb-sucking around the age of five — under covers, in closets, in bathroom stalls. I would press the ball of my right thumb against the roof of my mouth, keeping it balanced while I rubbed my upper lip with my middle finger, not exactly sucking my thumb as much as just leaving it there and breathing around it. This was most comfortable while lying on my side with my knees pulled toward my chest, but I could settle with being perched on a chair leaning forward. I imagine it all began in utero: around twenty weeks before being born, a fetus can suck her thumb. It's our earliest form of self-soothing.

All of a sudden I was twenty. An adult thumb-sucker.

"You stopped sucking your thumb around eight or nine," recalled my father when I asked him about it. He gently tried to curb my habit in elementary school by taking my hand away from my face and saying, "Stop."

"But then I think I saw you suck your thumb a few times around seventeen or eighteen years old, watching TV. I thought I saw you, but I wasn't sure."

Some thumbs hang loose, with the remaining fingers playing with the upper lip, ear, nose. Some cup their fingers in a loose fist under their nose. ("The classic," Lazur noted.) Some cock their wrists to the side, the front, straight on. Some hold a blanket or a stuffed animal.Not all thumb-suckers are alike.

Lazur remembers every adult thumb-sucker he's ever seen.

Once, in Queens, he saw an NYPD officer in his 30s, in uniform, waiting at a stoplight in his patrol car, thumb plugged in mouth.

On Astoria Boulevard one afternoon, he saw a brunette in the back of a cab, her forehead pressed against the window, right thumb in her mouth, a finger running against her nose, in another classic position.

For a few years, coincidentally, he dated a woman who sucked her thumb and had a child from a previous marriage who also sucked her thumb.

The three of them would sometimes find themselves on the couch watching TV together; a middle-aged couple and a teenage girl in the wood-paneled living room of a vinyl-sided Long Island ranch, sucking their thumbs through the "Late Show."

Though thumb-sucking may be human's earliest addiction, "There is no formal clinical diagnosis for children or adults who thumb-suck," said Dr. Justin Misurell, the clinical director of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center's New Jersey office. "It can be considered a compulsive habit, similar to nail-biting, hair-pulling, and skin-picking."

Misurell has never treated a patient for thumb-sucking, but his protocol for treating similar kinds of compulsions is called habit-reversal training (HRT). HRT involves finding what triggers the compulsion and developing other physical responses to occupy a patient's hands.

Dentists tend to become concerned around the age of seven, with the emergence of permanent teeth. Letting a child suck their thumb beyond that — when adult teeth grow in — can cause an overbite or deformed jaw. Or it can have no effect at all.

Orthodontists can install violent-looking devices in children's mouths to make thumb-sucking as uncomfortable as possible. The "rake" or the "hay rake" is a series of short metal spikes just behind the front teeth. The "fence," "palatal crib," or "vertical cage" is when the spikes are replaced by metal rings or bars. Some caregivers buy their children "thumbguards," a wristband that covers the thumb in a plastic sheath. Others try coating the thumb in foul-tasting nail polishes or vinegar. Still others try to deter thumb-suckers with spanking, humiliation, rewards.

Drawing of a woman in a chair

(Image credit: (PRISCILLA WEIDLEIN))

"The rakes do work. But if someone really wants to, they can find a way around it — bend the thumb, bend the rake, stick the thumb into the corner of their mouths," said Dr. Richard Bloomstein, vice chairman of the orthodontics department at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine. "You can't force someone to stop sucking their thumb."

I certainly felt like I was the only one when I discovered Lazur's site a decade ago, in college. I had never seen or heard of another adult who did it. I had still never told my friends. Once, in a particularly vulnerable moment, I mentioned it to a college girlfriend as if I had stopped already."For all those years you thought you were the only person on the planet thumb-sucking at your age," reads, under a GIF of grown men and women sucking their thumbs. "Forget the past and all those bad thoughts you've had about yourself ... there are probably millions of adults thumb-sucking worldwide."

"I sucked my thumb until I was in high school," I lied.

"Wow, that's insane," she said.

"Yeah, I know," I laughed. As if.

And then later, under cloak of darkness, I must have turned toward the dorm-room wall, careful not to squeak a box spring. I lifted that thumb to my mouth like a stealth bomber, finger on that upper lip, three ... two ... one ... and felt the torpedoes of relief rain down.

That semester I found the site that would change me. It eased my fear that I was so different then the rest of the world, and comforted me even more than my thumb could.

Back then it was one of few resources online, though in 2016 there are thousands more search results for adult thumb-suckers. There are emotional confessions on YouTube videos and in blog posts. There's a thumb-sucking reddit page with threads like "trying to quit," "not just a bunch of babies," and "have you ever seen/met another thumb-sucker?"

One 2015 post reads, "Does anyone know what happened to the admin"

The first reply is from a user named lazurm. "I'm the administrator of that web site."

It may have been thanks to him that I was able to finally stop.

He looked closely at both my thumbs as I held a coffee mug. Lazur was wearing a brown flannel shirt, jeans, a black beret, and rose-tinted glasses when I saw him at the diner.

"No scars," he said. "Lucky."

"Still have the shame though," I said.

"the at-risk community is more likely to thumb-suck. It's a great amount of relief from anxiety."

He described his youth in Brooklyn and Queens (Brownsville to Rosedale to Woodmere). He was the son of a lawyer and a housewife who enjoyed the American Dream and had no idea that their son continued his thumb-sucking habit past toddlerhood. One night in the summer of 1965 or '66, when Lazur was a teenager, tossing and turning on a camp bunk bed, his eyes caught another camper asleep in the next bunk, sucking his thumb. That's when he realized he wasn't alone.

Until her mid-twenties, she carried a piece of blanket in her bra, and when she was stressed, she would take it out and hold it between her index finger and upper lip as she sucked her thumb.The night I met Lazur, I also spoke to Janice Erlbaum, a 46-year-old novelist who has explored her thumb-sucking habit in writing and kicked it with hypnosis.

She had spent time in a homeless shelter as a teenager and recalled that it was common to see other wayward kids on the couch in the common room sucking their thumbs.

"The thumb, I think, is a replacement for nurture that you didn't get," she said. "I know that the at-risk community is more likely to thumb-suck. It's a great amount of relief from anxiety. It made me feel a little safer, more self-contained."

Lazur noticed the same thing. In communities of poverty and instability, thumb-sucking seemed more common and sometimes more widely accepted.

Orthodontist Dr. Bloomstein, who has treated thumb-suckers in upscale and impoverished areas, thinks the habit is a psychological safety blanket independent of social status. "I think it could have a lot to do with anything that increases the stress level," he said. "Not enough money, too much money, absent parents, sibling rivalry, bullying at school..."

Bloomstein admits that he has had patients whom he attempted to treat as child thumb-suckers who have turned into adult thumb-suckers. But he's never had an adult reveal their habit. By the time they're adolescents, they begin to deny it, and it becomes more difficult to treat.

As we conversed, he put his thumb in his mouth. Which emboldened me: I sucked my own thumb for the first time in years. Tentatively at first.A few weeks after we meet at the diner, I arrange to visit Lazur at his home. We sit in the front living room on couches divided by a coffee table. He lives in a Nassau County suburb with matching two- and three-bedroom homes lining cul-de-sacs named after various flora. On the walls: family photographs, nature paintings. Various bicycles, bike parts, books, and Native American artwork are scattered throughout the first floor.

We sat and sucked our thumbs for a few more minutes. It wasn't until I got up to leave that I realized I was crying.

The feeling: a loosening of all muscles, a mother's embrace. He compares it to the natural motion of crossing one's legs — the fingers went into position as if I had never stopped. And then I was that young girl again, hiding in the bathroom stall during class, right thumb resting in my mouth, picking at my upper lip with my index finger, eyes closed. Everything that felt bad — being bullied and alienated, having trouble with schoolwork, feelings of isolation — would disappear into this tent of calm that the thumb created around me.

On his website, Lazur writes on the benefits of thumb-sucking: "It's legal, free, instantly calming, aids in sleep and concentration, is quiet, drug- and calorie-free, non-intrusive, has benefits similar to meditation, and more." And I would add, for me, it tends to stop time.

But our visit had been quick.

We sat and sucked our thumbs for a few more minutes. It wasn't until I got up to leave that I realized I was crying.

I walked to my car disoriented, sat down, turned on the engine, and cracked a window. I sat for a few minutes before starting to drive. I passed through the quaint roads and highways not unlike those where I grew up, shivering as the cool air hit my face.

If Lazur had been driving that afternoon, he would have been studying everyone he passed, as he always does. He would have looked over at the blue car riding slow down the Long Island Expressway and seen the driver, a young woman with fresh tear lines on her cheeks, brown hair dancing in the wind. Her right thumb would be in her mouth, ring finger tracing lines on her upper lip in a way that seemed too familiar. Perhaps she didn't care about being seen anymore, she wasn't embarrassed, even as the traffic turned heavy with hundreds of prying eyes as she neared the Midtown Tunnel.

Pearl Gabel is a writer, photojournalist, and video producer for a variety of news and nonprofit organizations. Previously, she was a staff photographer at the New York Daily News, where she covered national and local news, documentary, and features. She is working on a variety of projects, including an essay collection titled "The Wood." You can find her @pearlgabel on Twitter.