Smoking Alone

“Several times Ben was caught stealing, and because the kids who talked him into it had threatened him, he wouldn’t say who they were. He also had a temper, and the tantrums he threw in town frightened some of the neighbors.”

Ben was born in 1941. He was an obese baby and had hammertoes—a joint abnormality that causes the toes to bend down, claw-like.

One time, at age two and a half, Ben was found on the floor after having fallen. He seemed fine, but the next morning he had a blood-filled swelling on his head. Many years later, doctors would declare that his developmental problems were congenital, and had nothing to do with the accident. Ben, however, having heard about the fall, always thought of himself as someone who had cracked his skull.

In first grade, his difficulty with symbols became apparent. More than thirty years later, Ben could still recall how hard reading and arithmetic had been for him. He was taken out of school in third grade. His parents wrote to the state institution for people with intellectual disabilities in Boulder, but withdrew their application when they realized he would receive little education or training there. So they raised him at home, on a farm, along with a brother and two sisters.

As Ben grew up he became sort of a town joke, subject to teasing and manipulation. Several times he was caught stealing, and because the kids who talked him into it had threatened him, he wouldn’t say who they were. He also had a temper, and the tantrums he threw in town frightened some of the neighbors.

In his early twenties, Ben tried to win friends by buying alcohol for minors. One time his father placed three hundred dollars in his checking account for chores he had done. Later that day, at the urging of some teenagers, Ben went to one liquor store after another. He had forgotten what his parents taught him about check stubs, so he kept no records. By the end of the evening he had cleaned out his account and bounced several hundred dollars’ worth of additional checks.

At age twenty-four he voluntarily spent six months at the state mental institution in Warm Springs. Over the next few years he admitted himself four more times. He was treated for anxiety and hallucinations, and for his violent outbursts.

During one of these visits he received fifteen electric shock treatments. He once told me these were used to erase certain things from his memory. He said he was glad he had gotten the treatments, “because they made me forget some bad things. But it’s made me nervous ever since; that’s why my hands started shaking. Usually I can kind of control it, but sometimes it gets pretty bad.”

Following his fifth trip, he was told that if he wished to return, he would have to agree to a long-term stay of indefinite length. After hearing that, he had no interest in going back.

During his late twenties he drifted from job to job: sorting beets at a sugar beet factory, loading hides, working for farmers. After a couple of weeks, his boss would tell him he wasn’t working hard enough, and let him go. Once he was supposed to be plowing his father’s fields, but instead he hid the tractor behind a haystack and took a nap. His father found him, though, and bawled him out.

In his early thirties he went to a vocational training center but didn’t like it. He left there and was hired as a bouncer at a bar. After cashing his first paycheck, he was beaten and robbed. He wouldn’t tell the police anything because his assailants had threatened to kill him. He was in the hospital for a week.

He ended up at a sheltered workshop close to where he’d grown up. There he met Trudy, whom he married in 1979. Trudy had a lower IQ than Ben but was considered more mature. According to the workshop staff, however, she regressed after their marriage, becoming less independent, as Ben became domineering, even abusive. He argued a lot with his relatives, and one time punched his mother-in-law.

Sometimes Ben said he liked being married and got along with his wife; he especially enjoyed their sexual relationship. Other times, Ben told his mother he wished he hadn’t married, but became upset when she mentioned the possibility of divorce.

Eventually, to reduce tensions, Ben and Trudy decided to get away from their families. Ben also became more conscientious about taking his Haldol, an antipsychotic medication that lessened his nervousness and helped control his aggression.

They moved several hundred miles away, to a supervised apartment building in Great Falls. Management provided one meal a day for the residents and assisted with room cleaning. The Department of Housing and Urban Development helped pay the rent each month. Trudy spent her days taking care of their apartment, while Ben, in December of 1980, came to the Center.

At 5’8” and 240 pounds, Ben was a bear of a man, with a deep chest and hands like great paws. He wore glasses and had short, light brown hair and thick sideburns. He walked with his toes pointed out, taking short, quick steps. His hammertoes, plus an accidental gunshot wound to his right hip at age thirty, contributed to his awkward gait. He kept his shoulders thrown back, while his chest swiveled from side to side.

Ben’s intellectual disability was classified as borderline. Determinations of intellectual disabilities are usually based at least partly on IQ. Methodologies have changed over the years, but in the time period relevant to this book—the 1940s to the 1980s—IQ was calculated by the formula, Mental age/Chronological age x 100. A person’s score on an IQ test increases very little beyond a certain age, so for the purposes of this formula, adults were often assigned a chronological age of sixteen. Thus an adult with a mental age of sixteen would have an IQ of 16/16 x 100 = 100, which signifies average intelligence. On the other hand, an adult with a mental age of eight would have an IQ of 8/16 x 100 = 50.

Psychologists generally classify anyone with an IQ below seventy as intellectually disabled. About two percent of the population falls into this group. It is sometimes subdivided as follows:
Below 25: Profoundly disabled
25-39: Severely disabled
40-54: Moderately disabled
55-69: Mildly disabled
Psychologists classify those who score somewhat above this level (IQ 70-84) as borderline intellectually disabled. Roughly thirteen percent of the population falls into this category.

There were many clients at the Center whose IQs I didn’t know, but of the ones I did know, most were between thirty and sixty. Chuck, with an IQ of twenty-five, was at the lower end of our spectrum, while Ben was at the upper end: with a mental age of twelve, he had an IQ of seventy-five. Because of his lack of education, however, his academic skills were lower than his mental age would suggest. He could read at a third-grade level. He could count to one hundred, but was unable to do even the simplest addition or subtraction. When shopping, he’d pay with the next highest dollar, then accept whatever change he was given. He wore a watch, and could tell time to the half hour, but had trouble with the one- and five-minute marks. So he was aware of everyday matters without being fluent in them: people with borderline intellectual disabilities are not blind to the world, but they see it through a haze. They live in the no-man’s-land between people who have disabilities and people who do not, between people who are self-sufficient and people who are sheltered. Ben was bright enough to be out on his own but confused enough to be vulnerable.

For instance, he was excited when learning about the new Great Falls bus system. He found out where to catch the buses, where they went, and how much they cost. Then he and Trudy used them to go shopping at the mall, which they previously had no way of getting to.

On the other hand, Ben once told me he’d like to try riding a bike to work but didn’t know which street to take.

“Just go straight down Central,” I told him.

“Yeah, but I don’t know which one is Central,” he replied.

For over a year he had been riding the client bus, with its meandering route, to and from work, never realizing that Central was the street on which both his apartment and his job were located.

At the Center, during lunch and break, Ben would sit quietly, thinking about things. When somebody spoke to him, however, he was responsive and amiable, sprinkling his conversations with chuckles. Occasionally he talked with clients, but more often he talked with staff.

“Do you fish, Glenn?” he asked me one afternoon.

“No, Ben, I sure don’t.”

“Oh well… I thought maybe I’d found me a fishin’ buddy. [Laughs.] Guess I’ll just have to keep looking.”

In the next few months, we had the same conversation several times. This was the first spring/summer since he and Trudy had moved away from their families, and I guess he was feeling a little lonely.

Different clients saw different things in Ben. Mike was a 4’9” Hispanic American who lived with his family and dreamed of one day driving a semi-truck. Sometimes in the lunchroom Mike sat next to Ben and looked up at him quietly, almost reverently. I think he saw Ben as a strong, silent father figure. To Leroy he was just the opposite—a playmate. Leroy was nowhere near Ben’s level of intelligence, but he could coax him into doing silly things. If they were sitting at the same lunch table, Leroy would pat Ben on the back, and they’d laugh. Then, if no teacher or supervisor seemed to be watching, Ben would pat Leroy, and they’d laugh again. Leroy knew that most of the sharper clients would have told him to knock it off, but with Ben he saw what the kids in town had seen so many years before—that he was willing to go along.

To Becky he was a mature married man—perfect for flirting with. Becky was thin as bones and had an easy laugh. Ben wore a key ring on his belt, and sometimes while they chatted in the lunchroom, Becky would jingle his keys. Or, if her hand got tired, she’d rest it on his thigh. Often they sat together on the client bus. First Ben would set his arm on the back of the seat, behind Becky. Then Becky would notice how rumpled Ben’s collar was. She’d lean over to straighten it, but one hand never seemed to do the job, so after a few seconds she’d reach around with her other hand, encircling his neck.

Our nurse once asked him, “What if your wife saw you doing all that?”

Ben, embarrassed, conceded, “She probably wouldn’t like it.”

Brenda Sue saw yet another side of Ben. She couldn’t speak, had Down syndrome and a severe intellectual disability, but she knew how to get to him. She was the only person I ever saw him get mad at. Sometimes she’d sit across from him at lunch, then grin as she shoved the table into his belly. Or she’d sneak up behind him in the hall, drop orange peels down his back, then scamper away, laughing. Ben, enraged, would cry out, but that only encouraged her. She reminded him of the small, agile antagonists who had been getting the better of him all his life.

His first year at the Center, Ben worked in the assembly section of the Glass Department. The assembler began with an ordinary, clear glass; these ranged in size from jiggers to drinking glasses to goblets. On the outside of the glass the assembler glued small pieces of colored glass, creating a mosaic effect. Later, a grouter applied black grout to the outside of the glass, filling the spaces between the pieces. Finally, a steelwooler removed any grout that had dried on top of the pieces. The glass was then sold as a candleholder: a lighted candle inside the glass would shine through, and highlight, the different colors.

Even after a year in the assembly area, Ben’s productivity was low, and his finished glasses were often smeared with dried glue, so we decided to try him in the grouting area. When he was gluing small pieces of glass, the tremor in his hands was sometimes noticeable; but it turned out that grouting, with all its rubbing and pressing, helped to steady his hands. He learned quickly, moving from small glasses to larger, more difficult ones. Every day he told Molly, the grouting supervisor at the time, how much he enjoyed being on this crew. He was so eager that for the first few weeks he’d hurry downstairs after his 10:00-10:30 class, whip on his coveralls, work for five minutes, take his coveralls off, wash up, then hurry back upstairs in time for 10:45 break. He knew we were giving him the most challenging glasses, and he was proud of his work. One day he did a perfect job grouting one of our design glasses, which had a large red heart surrounded by all white pieces. He bought this glass himself and put it in a locker at work. On Valentine’s Day he took it home and surprised his wife.

After a few months he was completing nine or ten glasses a day. He was probably capable of fifteen or more, but in the afternoons he practically stopped working. His mind would wander, and Molly had to push to keep him moving at all.

Lunch was the turning point. Most of the time Ben sat by himself. He never ate much—maybe just some bread with peanut butter. Smoking was allowed in the lunchroom in those days, so for the rest of the lunch period Ben would lean back in his chair and smoke a cigarette or two, keeping his thoughts and worries private.

His introspective mood would set the tone for the rest of the day; and when, in the middle of the afternoon, he realized how slowly he was working, he’d get discouraged and slow down even more.

Past events kept coming to mind, nagging at him; but after a while, the problems of the present would drown them out. Money was a constant concern. Clients received small paychecks every two weeks based on their productivity: most clients completed about ten to twenty percent as much work as a non-disabled person would, and therefore earned ten to twenty percent of the minimum wage ($3.35 at the time). Ben was fairly typical, earning about fifty cents an hour for the fifteen or twenty hours he spent grouting glasses each week. Even with the money his parents gave him and the government assistance he received, he and Trudy never seemed to have enough, and that depressed him. Several times he thought about quitting, but who would hire him and for how long? He wasn’t making much, but it was better than nothing, and at least he knew he wouldn’t get fired.

Ben once told me he felt uncomfortable around disabled people. And he was different from the mass of clients. He was more self-reflective, more able to carry on a conversation, more aware of the ways of the world. He didn’t live with his parents or in a group home; he didn’t have anyone managing his life and providing for all his needs. He was a middle-aged married man. He’d sit in the lunchroom, smoking, brooding, surrounded by coworkers who in many cases were as carefree and frivolous as children. He was deprived of the skills that usually accompany adulthood, but was spared none of the pressures. With intellectual disabilities, the brighter you are, the harder it is.

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