What Paper Towels Taught Me About Trauma

for mentors for parents for program directors Aug 14, 2021
I used to work with a guy who would, after washing them, shake his hands off in the sink and then wipe them on his pants. I didn’t think much of it at first, but over years of working with him, I noticed he wiped his hands on his pants often. I have to admit that I thought he was just lazy when our work provided a staff meal and he would wipe his hands on his pants rather than use the pile of napkins right in front of him. He did it so routinely, I gossiped with other co-workers about it. This is not something I’m proud of and shows my own lack of maturity, but what grown man in a professional setting wipes pizza sauce on his pants?
One day I asked playfully, “Why don’t you use the paper towels?”
“We never had them,” he responded without hesitation.
“You never had them?” I asked
He went on to tell me that he lived with his mom who’s mental health kept her from keeping employment. She was a good mom, but they were poor and paper towels were a luxury they couldn’t afford.
“I never had something to wipe my hands on, and we got in trouble for wiping our hands on the furniture. We never had clean towels either because we had to lug our laundry to the laundromat and we only made that trip like once a month. I don’t know, it's just the way I clean my hands.” he explained.
I, of course, felt badly for thinking he was lazy and realized my privilege - to have had paper towels, two-parents, a washing machine and so much more.
Such a good example of how our body keeps the score. Even after growing up, and having access to paper towels, the habits he learned, in a survival situation during core years of his development, were stuck on autopilot. They were his default.
Many children in foster care or who have survived complex trauma are simply doing what they know, regardless of if their situation has changed, regardless if they now have access to new resources. When people don’t act the way we think they should, are they necessarily wrong? Are we right? Maybe it’s just the way they have learned to do things. Their behavior presents an opportunity for us to learn a new perspective and more importantly, CONNECT.

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