Bedbugged! Mental coping strategies when you're under attack

By Theresa Braine  | June 2, 2011 - 10:08AM

Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

I have thrown out a few tidbits for the worried well and, I hope, given everyone an idea of what to look for during regular inspections. Now I turn my attention to those of you who are going through an infestation, and beyond.

There are some things I did mentally that kept me a tad less insane than I would have been otherwise. Some of them, of course, I only figured out later. Here’s both what I did and what I would do if I faced this situation again.

Early on in the first bed-bug infestation I made a conscious decision: I would never say (or think) that I had bed bugs. My apartment had bed bugs; I did not. It’s a bit of semantics that make a world of difference. I realized that if I thought of myself as having bed bugs, then on a subtle level I’d feel as though they were on my person at all times. So would anyone else with whom I spoke.

In this way, I’ve done my best to steer clear of saying that I’m afflicted; I frame it in terms of my apartment. It helped in terms of the self-esteem issues that can develop when this disgusting problem asserts itself. I felt pestilence-ridden enough as it was; I certainly didn’t want to convey an image akin to that of me carrying lice. That isn’t the reality anyway.

Bed bugs do not live on your person. They eat and run to a hidey-hole. If a bed bug happens to hitchhike by crawling into a pocketbook or onto a knapsack, that’s one thing. They aren’t harboring on your body. It is important to reflect this in your outlook. I even thought of it at one point as my apartment having the flu. That made sense on another level, the isolation. If one has a communicable disease, it’s (a) temporary and (b) important to quarantine yourself so as to avoid spreading it. That made me feel less like a pariah and more like a responsible citizen.

Basically, the more emotional distance you put between yourself and this problem, the more pragmatic you can be in your approach, and the more effective you will be in solving it.

Also, don’t assume the bugs started with you because you found them first. That will prevent you from seeing the big picture. Mentally, you’ll be checking to see whether you have passed the bugs to anyone, not determining where it began. That makes a big difference in treatment mentality and reality, which involves surveying the whole scene so as to get the bigger picture. 

How to escape the mental torture of knowing you’ll be devoured in your sleep? During the worst of it I lulled myself with this mantra: “They do not spread disease.” At the time the best information out there was that bed bugs’ biting apparatus does not inject germs into a wound. Recent research has brought that into question, but there is still no conclusive evidence that they do. 

Firming that up in my head helped me sleep at night. I would get bitten, yes, but the bites themselves were merely irritating. The experience was extremely unpleasant, but there was nothing to fear. Besides, once my place had been treated, I knew that the little creeps were going to die by the very act of getting to me. Bring it! I’d think.

Such mental strategies are part of keeping your cool when you suspect or discover a bed-bug infestation. This is the most important thing you can do—in any situation, of course, but even more so in this one. If you don’t stay calm, you do what I did in the beginning: You freak out and start junking all your possessions, which can spread the infestation. Worse, if you are panicking, you won’t seek knowledgeable help.

My other piece of advice is to research, research, research, but don’t read just any old thing on the Internet. There is plenty of credible information out there and a links page on Bedbugger to get you started. I armed myself with as much knowledge as I could cram into my brain, as if I were researching a story. And I resolved to use my experience to help others. On the one hand, I was obsessed and talked about it way too much. On the other hand, people always had questions.

I even found myself holding court once in a big-box home-goods store when a bunch of the sales clerks started drifting around me in the pesticide aisle, where I was buying No-Pest strips to seal up with some of my worldly goods. “People come in here every day, asking about stuff to kill bed bugs,” they said. They didn’t know what to tell these customers. Enlightening them made me feel better about my situation.

So did seeing my apartment infestation as an opportunity to de-clutter, to lighten my load by shedding unneeded possessions. I am still paring down, and although I will never be a minimalist, I am much less of a packrat than I used to be.

Another bright note: Loath to eat at home because my apartment felt so gross, I used my antipathy as a jumping-off point for checking out my neighborhood and its restaurants. Now I’ve got a list of recommendations.

Keeping everything in perspective is the best thing you can do for yourself. A bed-bug invasion is one of the cruddier experiences out there, yes, but it is not the end of the world.

Next Week: Picking up the Pieces


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. 


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