May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant. Psalm 119:76 (NIV)
“What are you doing?” The frowning auntie hovered over my Curious George book, and her voice tugged my mind back from the jungle to the girls’ dormitory at our boarding school in Nigeria.
“You shouldn’t be reading here in the lobby, slouched in that chair on this sunny afternoon.” At her brusque tone, I snapped my book closed and sat up straight.
“I found this funny story about a friendly monkey,” I said. “Here at K.A., everything seems strange, but George lives in a new place, too.”
“Well, I noticed you sucking your thumb behind those pages, Debbie,” the auntie said. “Soon your teeth will jut out, and your mom won’t like that.” She lifted the bright, yellow book from my hands and set it on the corner table. “Come with me.”
The dorm auntie turned and strode down the long hall of fourth-graders’ rooms, through the back door, and across the walkway to the nurse’s office. I trotted behind, chewing on my lower lip. How much trouble am I in now? I wondered.
“We have a thumb-sucker here,” she announced to the nurse, then swished out the door again.
The white-capped nurse peered at me over her glasses. “We have just the remedy for that problem. Which thumb do you suck?”
I fought to keep my voice steady. “This one.” I held up my right thumb.
So, you’re a Righty
“So, you’re a Righty.” She took a tall medicine bottle off the counter, shook it vigorously, and unscrewed the cap. After pouring some of the brown solution onto a cotton ball, she took my hand, then smeared the cool liquid down the back of my thumb and up the front and sides. Around and around her fingers bustled, painting my skin a dark, muddy brown.
“Now blow on the tincture to dry it,” she instructed.
After a minute or two she patted the flesh and nodded.
“It’s dry. Try sucking on that.”
A Nasty Shock
The rank smell of burnt cheese reached my nostrils as I lifted my hand. At the first taste of the pungent coating, my eyelids flew wide open and my eyeballs bulged. I jerked my thumb away. But my tongue stung from the tang, and I spit into my palm attempting to remove the bitter taste.
“Is this poisonous?” I asked. My brown eyes searched hers for reassurance.
“No, it’s not, but it will help you break that bad habit. You’re a big girl now.”
Sniffing back unwelcome tears, I washed my hands in her sink, scrubbing at the offensive remedy, but it didn’t lighten at all.
“The treatment will stay on for a couple weeks,” she said.
I dried my hands and slunk out of the office, dragging my feet across the playground, and up the five steps to the girls’ dorm. My cheeks flushed warm at the thought of the mark I now wore. I hid it in my fist.
No auntie was in sight, so I settled again into the padded chair in the lobby and tucked my legs under me. Curious George had waited and welcomed me with his impish grin. After turning two pages, I placed my thumb in my mouth. Ugh. That tastes like a stink bug smells, I thought, yanking it out.
Pinching my nose with my left hand, I inserted my thumb again. That worked. Sort of. But I couldn’t balance my book. And when I pulled back to breathe, the nasty taste stayed on my tongue.
Symbol of Shame
The screen door swung open and another girl skipped inside. She stopped in front of me and wagged her pointer finger. “I see you sucking your thumb even with that yucky stuff. I could tell on you.” She turned and sped to the bathroom.
A big sister walked in and caught me studying the fresh stain. I dropped my hand behind my book.
She smiled. “There are several Brown Thumbs in the girls’ dorm this week. You’re not the only one.” She sat next to me.
“Two second graders and a third grader also suck their thumbs. One of the girls rubs her cheek with a silky hanky at the same time.”
I laughed. “Oh, goody! At least I’m not that silly. She’s even more of a baby than me.”
The bell rang for dinner, and as we walked to the dining room, I tucked my arm in the folds of my skirt. At the table, a boy pointed and chanted, “Baby, Baby!” when he discovered my brown brand. Another said, “Only babies suck their thumb.” Two hot tears rolled down my cheeks and landed in my spaghetti.
I plopped my fist in my lap, inhaled a shaky breath, and grabbed my fork with my left hand. While the dining hall echoed with children’s happy chatter, I struggled to swallow past a boulder-sized lump in my throat.
After lights-out, I curled up in bed, lying first on my side facing the wall, then flipping to my back, and turning to my side again. I couldn’t get comfortable. Where do I place my hands if I can’t put my thumb in my mouth? How do I fall asleep?
My thoughts drifted back to supper, and an idea popped into my head. I’ll show them. I’ll learn to suck my other thumb.
During the next few days, when the kids teased me, I ignored them. Eventually they got bored and started bugging another first-grade girl. Each time I walked past a bathroom, I rubbed my thumb with soap, and finally the tincture wore off. The left thumb had proved hard to get used to, so I happily started up with my favorite one again.
One afternoon I forgot to keep the habit hidden, and the auntie caught me again. “Off to the nurse you go. We must cure this before you fly home at Christmas.”
I marched to the infirmary, pushed open the door, and said to the nurse, “I sucked my thumb again.”
I flashed a wide, angelic smile
“Hold up your hand,” she said and reached for the bottle.
As I watched her apply the wretched mixture, I flashed a wide, angelic smile. “I’m sure your magic will work this time.” I determined never to get caught again.
For four more years, through age ten, I continued to suck my thumb. During most of the day, I steeled myself and suppressed the urge, motivated by fear of ridicule and punishment. However, I soon discovered that I practiced the habit involuntarily in my sleep. My spirit and my body craved loving comfort.
The teasing touched me to the core – it seemed to be true that only babies sucked their thumb, and that label resonated with the insecurity I felt. Because I lacked the safety and security of home, I attempted to calm my nervous system with the self-soothing remedies of reading, time alone, and thumb-sucking. When those were disrupted, I developed other coping skills such as hiding and becoming an ambidextrous thumb-sucker!
Additionally, I learned to label and be labeled, finding a hierarchy of acceptance. To gain approval, I donned a public façade of compliance. This led me to develop misconceptions of God, and I failed to see him as a Loving and Accepting Caregiver.
I know now that even though God allowed these trials, he tenderly preserved me through them. Just when I needed help, he provided a kind person and a ray of hope, like the girl who told me other kids sucked their thumbs too.
God’s Word is a reliable resource and has a lot to say about comforting us when we feel lonely, insecure, or ashamed. I’m finding healing as I discover how deeply God loves me and that he does indeed provide for all my needs, both emotional and physical. I’m learning to trust him to put shame to death and fill me with the comfort of his unfailing love.
Link It to Your Life
Did you ever feel shamed for normal childhood actions or habits that most children outgrow naturally? How did you handle that? Were you ever labeled by others? How did that compare with what God says about you in his Word? What Scripture verses give you hope and help in hard times? Think of a misconception you may have of God or yourself, and ask him to transform your heart experience through his Word.
Thank you, Father, that you are a God of comfort. Thank you for shielding me while walking with me through pain. Help me to know that your unfailing love will console me and uphold me in all trials I encounter.