Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
A few weeks after I arrived at my new apartment, bed bugs exploded into the media. They were closing high-profile clothing outlets. They were in the movies. They showed up on billboards in Times Square. They even infested the basement of the Empire State Building. They were everywhere.
For much of it, I was out of town. But I monitored from afar. Would the city and the media “get it”? They didn’t really. All that the coverage did was freak people out about bed bugs. Worse, some sites put up erroneous photos that didn't show bed bugs. And most of the earliest stories didn’t tell people how to avoid getting them, or what do to if you did. (Coverage has improved since then, but you can still tell that most of the people writing stories about bed bugs have never had bed bugs.)
I returned home to find it a hot topic of conversation around my apartment. I started to feel uncomfortable, as though I were harboring a dirty little secret. In fact, I was. As the summer waned and the bed bug “coverage” continued to accelerate, I decided to tell them.
It was clear by then, about two months after I moved in, that I hadn’t brought anything live with me. I was not getting any bites, and neither were they (although if they were nonreactors, as the majority of the population are, the bites wouldn’t have shown).
I hit the mellower roommate first. We were talking about the whole phenomena and the hysteria in general. I took a deep breath and gave it a positive spin.
“I’m actually a bit of an expert on bed bugs,” I told her. “I’ve been writing about it. In fact, I’m doing it from first-hand experience—my last apartment had bed bugs.”
I said the last part pretty quickly, just to get it out, then followed up with, “My place had been exterminated a couple of months before I left, and I treated all my stuff with heat anyway just to be sure. Anything remotely questionable is sealed, in storage, and not coming into this apartment.”
She blanched but then revealed that a family member whose place she’d spent a lot of time at had just found out his digs were infested. She asked intelligent questions, and I did my best to answer them.
A few days later, I mentioned it in passing to the other roommate. She looked stricken for a second, but then said something along the lines of “Well, we’ll see.” Then she looked ill and didn’t want to talk about it any more.
They didn’t kick me out, as I’d feared. They took a fatalistic attitude rather than stigmatize me. But I wondered, if I had mentioned it going in, would they have taken me as a roommate?
A few days after that second conversation, it happened. Standing, I glanced down at the foot of my air mattress (I would not buy a new bed for at least another month) and saw something on the floor. It was a little brown oval but with horizontal ridges. It didn’t look quite the right color or shape, but it was close enough to make me pounce.
I grabbed the thing before it could run away. It got a little squished. I slid it onto an index card and scrutinized the hell out of it. A deep gut instinct told me it wasn’t a bed bug. Roach nymphs have the same ridges. But it was close. I needed a professional evaluation.
The next day I took it to M&M Pest Control. People bring bugs (as well as lint) there all the time. It was squished enough and enough of a resemblance that it caused consternation among some of the staff.
“Nope, roach nymph,” one said.
“Hmm, I’m not so sure,” said another. “It’s misshapen enough to be questionable.”
This is how difficult it can be to diagnose bed bugs, even with bug in hand. (Bat bugs are even more similar to bed bugs, almost indistinguishable except under a microscope, yet the remedies are completely different.)
They put it under a microscope and zoomed in. They took high-res photos.
I felt as though I were awaiting biopsy results.
Tim Wong, with whom I usually dealt, wasn’t in, but M&M’s top bug evaluator came out of her inner sanctum and pronounced it a roach nymph. She pointed to some protuberances from the thing’s rear area that she said were definitive markers.
“But just to set your mind at ease, we will e-mail the pictures to Lou Sorkin,” she said. “It’s what we do any time there’s a question.”
Sorkin is an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side. He studies bed bugs all day and knows his stuff.
I left M&M reluctantly, walking slowly toward the subway and praying he’d write back very soon.
His response came about a half hour later, short, sweet and to the point: “cockroach nymph.” It was all in lower-case letters, as if Archy the cockroach himself had typed the words.
Ever want to kiss a roach? Nah, me neither. But I had never been so glad to see one.
I had suspected that this wasn’t a bed bug, but I had been uncertain enough to consult a professional. And in doing so, I’d been gripped with that paralyzing, what-if anxiety.
Suddenly, I was free. And not only from this one bug question; it also hit me on a larger scale: I no longer had bed bugs. The sun shown a little brighter. I swear I heard birds chirping, even though I was walking down a cement street full of roaring vehicles. I had turned a corner mentally and emotionally. I no longer felt like someone who was followed by bed bugs. It was a subtle shift, the way the first step on the moon was a footprint in the sand.
It was not automatic mental smooth sailing from then on. But I did stop expecting to see them everywhere.
Next week: Gaining perspective.
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 trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.