What I Learned From a Dental Torture Device

My sister was screaming. My mom was shrieking as well. Everything seemed out of control…mass hysteria. All because the little key that widened the spacer bridge in my mouth fell out of my mom’s hand and down my throat. This weekly checklist item got on the checklist because I was a thumb sucker. Until 4th grade!

Dentistry invented this torture device to widen an upper palate so that you can get back to a normal bite. Every week, this torment took the form of my mom or dad turning a little key that slowly stretched my jaw. Dad was out of town so my mom had to try this hand contortion act, locate the spot for the key, turn, and remove her slobbered-on hand. But she dropped the key. She shrieked. My sister wondered why the shriek, and then started screaming. I was torn between my mom’s yelling and the gag reflex that easily coughed up the dropped key. I tried to calm the situation by yelling that I have the key, but it took a few seconds to restore order.

A bad habit to say the least, but how can you help it when it is your comfort blanket? Thumb sucking was comforting. Linus had his blanket AND his thumb. I’m jealous. And I think it’s genetic because both my boys go for the same form of comfort zealously. There are a lot of habits we start innocently enough because we need comfort. Our babies started within months and we are still trying to coax our almost five-year-old away from his addiction.


Thumb sucking seems like a harmless addiction until the dentist says he has to put this torture device in to help break your child of the habit. I never asked my parents how much the torture device cost. But I’m about to find out with our son.

I’ve been pondering what it takes to break a habit. Or even an addiction. Although many habits begin innocently to help deal with pressure or stress, many times habits can turn into addictions that become extremely difficult to break.

I’ve often been challenged by the sentence toward the end of the “love chapter” in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13) where the Apostle Paul says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” There is such wisdom in that sentence. I can personalize that: “When I was a child I sucked my thumb, because when I felt uncomfortable or didn’t know what to do, I did what came naturally…I sucked my thumb. But in high school this doesn’t bring as much comfort as it does ridicule, so I stopped. Because when something doesn’t work anymore, I put it behind me.”

Thumb sucking started innocently, but at some point it isn’t useful anymore. What habits did you start in order to deal with the stresses of life? What habits have become addictions that you can’t seem to live without? Can you honestly evaluate the defense mechanisms you employ and whether they are still working for you?

Maturity means putting away childish reasoning and responses and developing new courses of action. It’s hard work growing toward maturity because it means you need to evaluate all your actions and reactions. And it may mean putting childish ways behind you. But which would you choose…holding onto childish reactions because that is what you are used to OR moving toward maturity even though it hurts to break with the past?

Here are three thoughts to consider in helping you move forward. All inspired by the torture device inserted into my mouth when I was nine.

BREAKING POINT. There was a distinct moment in time when the torture device was installed and it immediately made thumb sucking not as enjoyable. There was a rapid departure from the past. It was a breaking of the pattern. This moment of time was forced on me, but yours doesn’t need to be. It can be your choice to tackle a habit or addiction. Your addiction may be something that is affecting relationships around you. You may NEED to do something about it now. There needs to be a resolute moment in time when you choose to do something about it.

Psychiatrist and counselor Henry Cloud has said,

“We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change.”

What consequences have shown up in your life that have given motivation for change? Have you reached a breaking point where you see that change is the better option?

BRIDGE. My palate needed to be widened if I was even to have a normal dental bite. The dentist knew how long that torture device would need to be in there to reach that goal. He had the vision and foresight to know what needed to be done. We need to make honest evaluation of our current state and why we are employing this habit or addiction. Are there bad feelings we are medicating by this addiction or habit? Is there something that we don’t want to really deal with so we keep this defense mechanism going? Is this habit actually accomplishing something positive for my personality, health and character?

We need honest assessment of where we are and a clear vision of where we want to be. There is a choice we make to bridge that chasm of where we are to where we want to be. There is an bottomless jar of peanut butter M&M’s in my office, refilled daily. At times I would go once or twice a day for a small cup of those tasty delights. That’s a lot of calories. I had to make a decision this habit isn’t good for me and hold to a vision that my health is more important than a cup of dreamy fat bombs each day. I have to imagine the bridge of where I want to be and cling to it fiercely to be able face the resistance to succumb. Picture where you want to be and embrace it. What bridge picture do you need envision? Would seeing a counselor help you gain the vision of where you want to be for maturity’s sake?

BUILD. When I was in the midst of depression and anxiety in the early 2000’s, I spent about 2 ½ years in counseling. There was a lot of ways I looked at the world and looked at relationships that were unhealthy. I thought my happiness depended on what other people thought of me, and that drove my behavior. My counselor helped demolish the old structure of thoughts, and helped slowly build a new structure with solid foundation and good materials. It was painful, hard work, but so worth it. So much of how I do relationships now was built during those 2 ½ years.

The widening of my palate was essential for what would happen in the future. I would need braces too. But the dentist was building a solid foundation by getting my palate to the right width. Painful but essential.

Are you ready to build new patterns of healthy relationships? It takes time and effort. Do you have a vision of where you want to be…either getting bad habits out or building good ones in? Putting away childish reasoning and reaction is challenging, but where you get to relationally is worth the difficulty. Decide to build new patterns now.

Foundation Key. The bridge in my mouth only widened with a key turned every week. I think there is a key to having a solid foundation and reliable structure built. When I had swirling, confusing thoughts as much unhealthy structure was being torn down I would ask God, my Father for help. Sometimes that help was just to hold me when I felt so overwhelmed. He was always there to help me. He encouraged me through friends, He spoke to me through the Bible giving me wisdom and perspective, and I felt free to scream, cry, get angry and let the full range of emotion be shown. I felt His love and care through the midst of the worst feelings. I think God’s words give wisdom that is a sure foundation for weathering all of life’s trials.

-Wandering on Purpose


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