My middle-aged friend sucks his thumb!

I don't think there is anything quite as disgusting as this. How can I get him to stop?

Published July 25, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I know it must sound implausible, but I have a middle-aged friend who sucks his thumb and I don't know if I can take it anymore. It is absolutely disgusting to witness, as he lets the wrinkled thing fall glistening from his lips, wiping it dry enough on whatever he finds handy. I have a few cousins who fell prey to the apparent allure of thumb sucking as infants or children and never grew out of it, so it's not my first experience with this repulsive habit, but oh, the horror of it!

The thing is he's a very good friend. He's kind and generous, has a great sense of humor, and he's loyal in a way that I have never seen in anyone other than my mother. I enjoy his company immensely, right up until I catch him dragging that soaking wet thumb from his lips, sometimes trailing a little saliva, like a new spider web suspended in the air. Then I'm nauseated and, I admit, quite judgmental. I mean, his poor thumb has been so deprived of sun and air that it is permanently discolored and wrinkled. Of course, as with all thumb suckers, his teeth and lower lip have shifted in order to accommodate his 40-year habit (and unattractively, I might add, although I suppose that, in the grand scheme of things, the loss to his masticatory abilities is more important than the loss to his attractiveness). I guess my point is that we're not talking about some consequence-free little quirk, here. Why doesn't he at least care about his teeth if he won't give a little consideration to his belabored thumb?

I'm not writing to ask how to approach him with my concern, as I already have, in much the same half-joking way that the subject gets broached in my family. He acknowledged that it's not appropriate, but insisted, just like my cousins do, that there's no comfort in the world like it. His eyes, like theirs, glazed a little at the thought of the soothing pleasure to be had in hooking that thumb (for it is always the same thumb; I've never known an ambidextrous sucker) over the bottom teeth and lip, and letting it hang there, stewing in spit. I heaved a resigned sigh and after much defiance and shaking of heads, we came to an agreement: I would quit smoking my horrible cigarettes and he would stop sucking his poor thumb.

It has been three months since I had a cigarette and the man is STILL sucking that damn thumb! Neither the frequency nor the duration of these sucking episodes has declined. I feel swindled. I feel betrayed. I gave up my cigarettes, which I loved almost more than air, and got nothing in return. So, now what? He's clearly never going to give this habit up. It is never going to stop making me sick to my stomach; just the thought of it is enough -- I have had a ball of bile in my throat the size of a muffin throughout the composition of this letter. What do I do? Do I relegate him to a phone-only friendship? Do I completely cut him off? Do I remind him daily of the sacrifice I made? Please help me.


Dear Sickened,

Thumb sucking is a turning inward, an enfolding of the body into self-enclosure; it is a self-soothing, self-nourishing activity. It is private and in a sense intimate. As such, it can make others uncomfortable.

So I think it is reasonable to ask that a friend refrain from sucking his thumb in your presence if it bothers you. And if he won't refrain, I would ask why not? Is he simply unable to refrain? Or is there something going on between you? Is this some sort of game, or power struggle? Is it romantic? Is it sexual?

Moreover, you and he had a deal. But he didn't hold up his end of the bargain. Again, what is he trying to accomplish here? Is he trying to demonstrate that he won't be controlled by you? Is he taunting you? Or is he simply unable to control this habit?

It is hard to tell without more information. But I suggest you try to answer these questions for yourself. If you think about his actions and use your intuition, perhaps you will come to know in your heart what he's up to.

No matter what happens between you and him, of enduring importance is the fact that you have quit smoking. I hope that will be a permanent victory, regardless of the way in which it was achieved.

Isn't it strange how a harmless habit disgusts us, but a deadly one we forgive? Perhaps our disgust is tinged with envy: Wouldn't it be nice if we could all stay in the crib sucking our thumbs! But we took to the harsh road of adulthood gladly, believing rewards awaited us, that rough exile from childhood would be compensated by soft connubial pleasures, that worldly power would fill us with confidence and help us sleep at night.

But no: Adult life turns out to be just as nightmarish as childhood, just as crowded with arbitrary death and demons. Before the whims of the world we remain as powerless as children. So we find our compensations where we can.

Some of us smoke, some of us drink, some of us suck our thumbs.

As to his friendship, if he won't stop sucking his thumb in front of you, I don't see much future in it. A friend would at least try -- especially since you made a bargain. He may be holding out for some larger prize. This may be a game to him. But I wouldn't count on anything. He has already shown that he won't honor a bargain.

p.s. Check out, especially the pen pals section, which contains many first-person accounts. Also of interest: this NBC "Extra" show, and the useful FAQ.

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