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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Now that I had lined up an exterminator and the bites were less frequent (flawed as my original exterminator was, he had gotten rid of most of the bugs for the time being)--I had to go through every single one of my possessions, heat-treating or examining them, then bagging them in airtight plastic.
I hadn’t quite gotten it in the beginning.
“You’ll have to go through all this stuff,” the first guy had said vaguely, sweeping a hand toward the piles of boxes stacked around my living room that were a combination of belongings I’d shipped from my seven years in Mexico and stuff that had been in my parents’ basement while I was away. I was still unpacking.
His replacement, the rock star aka John Furman, was more specific: Buy a Packtite heat-treating machine, he said. Bake your stuff. Bag it. Have it out of the way when I come so I can move around and treat.
The idea was to make it so he would only have to deal with the apartment itself.
I was a bit slow to catch on to the magnitude of the task before me. For instance, when I first found the bugs I put some bedding and other items in plastic grocery bags that were lying around the house and knotted them shut by the handles. This does not constitute a barrier to bugs that range from apple-seed-sized adults to poppy-seed-sized hatchlings and can crawl out as easily as if they were in a strainer. A sealed airtight container is necessary to sequester everything you own so that bugs can’t get into it if they’re wandering around, or out of it if they happen to be lurking in, say, a book.
Mind you, the bed bugs were probably not in any of it, at least in my case. But the chance that, say, a stray, pregnant female had made it to safety beyond the pesticide and managed to lay some eggs somewhere meant that I had to treat everything as if it were contaminated.
Lots of people simply toss their stuff at this point. But this is unnecessary at worst and questionable at best. For one thing, it can be treated. For another, throwing stuff outside--especially without wrapping it properly first--merely means you’re transferring the bugs to a garbage can or sidewalk, where they may very well infest someone else.
Nonetheless this was a perfect time to chuck and purge, and despite the fact that I’d been away in Mexico since 2001 and had edited my belongings before moving back to New York, I had quite a formidable-looking pile. There were boxes of photos of my entire life that had been stashed in my parents’ basement on Long Island; a giant Tupperware-style plastic box stuffed with just about every article I’d ever published during 15-plus years as a reporter and writer. An equally large plastic container cradled all my journals, starting with my first tiny diary begun when I was 9 (the year I had decided to become a writer). Then there were the letters, back from the days of snail mail. An entire carton of them, many to and from people I no longer knew.
Thus I, like many before and after me, discovered giant Ziploc bags. The box pictures a cheerful soccer mom type toting a bag of sports equipment. The items carry no mini blood stains or bedbug fecal traces. I wanted to be the woman on the box.
But I wasn’t. I was this woman: a returning ex-pat having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that bed bugs and a largely bed-bug-clueless city were what the so-called First World had to offer as a homecoming. A woman who had an inordinate amount of stuff considering I had brought no furniture into the apartment.
I had to wash every single piece of cloth, even curtains, and dry it at kiln-like temperatures for 30 minutes to an hour, then seal it away, taking out only what I absolutely needed, when I needed it, and keeping track of where it all was. Heat is the killer of all things bedbug, including eggs, so the dryer is key; whatever it takes to get every single item heated to 140 degrees for at least 30 minutes. Washing clothes is not necessary if they are clean, and you can do your dry-clean-only clothes this way too and save a lot of money.
As for non-washables, these had to be inspected or heat-treated. For this I ordered the Packtite, a $300 heating device that resembles a giant duffel bag. It consists of a metal frame and a heating unit surrounded by zippered canvas and comes with a digital thermometer and sensor. It is big enough to hold an airplane-overhead rolling bag and was indeed invented for frequent travelers who were afraid of bringing home bed bugs. But it has proved a godsend for bed bug sufferers, who have treated everything from shoes to books to the occasional printer. (You can also put your dry cleaning in it, I realized after I’d spent nearly $400 on dry cleaning. If I had figured that out sooner the thing would have paid for itself immediately.)
What you do is put things in so that heated air can circulate, preventing the bugs from finding a cool-enough place to hide and survive--I used low-sided plastic containers with no lids--and put the sensor end of the thermometer into the center of what you’re treating. Then set the timer and bake your stuff for as long as it takes to bring the temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and hold it there for at least an hour. Depending on what’s inside, this can take anywhere from two to eight hours.
The Packtite is not supposed to run unattended, partly because it is akin to a space heater, which for obvious reasons needs company, and partly because you need to monitor the temperature and double-check that the device doesn’t get turned off for some reason. For instance if a power failure or a short circuit were to cut the electricity, and it was back on by the time you returned, you wouldn’t know that the temperature may not have been high enough for long enough.
Needless to say, this To-Do List from Hell put something of a kibosh on my social life, not to mention my job search and any attempts to get my addled brain to pitch freelance stories. All I could think or talk about was bed bugs--getting rid of them, worrying about whether they were really gone, and wondering how the hell I was going to pay for it all. Getting out of the house was such a hassle, involving as it did heat-treating anything I was going to wear or carry, or making sure it was coming out of a tightly sealed plastic bag, that sometimes I simply resorted to phone and e-mail.
Thus it was that I found myself, in late June and early July 2009, going through all my things, portioning my life into giant Ziplocs and large plastic lidded containers that I taped shut. I carefully labeled each one: “Dresses.” “Shirts.” “Bedding.” “Books.”
By the end of it my living room was a sea of plastic bags and boxes. It looked as though a lunatic lived there. And by this point, one did.
I had started life as a squatter in my own home, a title I would hold for most of the summer.
Next Week: Extermination Day
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.