Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
I had finished my move, bed bug free. I had “come out” to my new roommates. I had even fielded a (thankfully negative) bed-bug scare.
Safe in a new environment, I started making sense of my experience. I had been trying to all along, of course, writing about it in various forums (a personal essay or two, a newspaper story on how to avoid renting a bed-bugged apartment and, of course, reams of journal entries and e-mails). But this was the first time I’d had space to think about it all while not going through it.
I lined up some freelance editing work, thankfully no longer worried about bringing hitchhiking critters to an office, and got a writing assignment or two. Like many bed bug "surivors," I waited awhile before forking out for a bed, sleeping on an air mattress for the first three months or so. I finally bought one almost exactly a year after the previous year's ill-fated bed purchase, when my first infestation had ended. I tapered off talking about bed bugs in social situations (a practice that was especially unpopular at parties). I still feel a sense of accomplishment remembering the weekend in September 2010 when I made it all the way to the end of Saturday night without saying a word about the pests. Okay, I almost made it. I blurted out some mention in my very last conversation. Nevertheless, that weekend was a turning point.
How to explain the emotional havoc that bedbugs wreak? It turns the sanest people into nutcases who bake their shoes in the oven, obsess over lint and cry incessantly. The bites, if you react, can itch like a mo-fo. Above all is the feeling of helplessness that, combined with the attendant insomnia of an infestation, turns your brain to mush at the very moment you have to become an ad hoc entomologist.
Because the bugs do not transmit disease, they have not historically been considered a public-health problem. Although that is starting to change, there is still an enormous amount of misinformation out there. So you try to correct it, but you feel like Charlton Heston screaming, “Soylent Green is people!”
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At one point during my first infestation I theorized as to why the phenomenon is so distressing. Well, when else is a person lying on his or her back, unconscious and helpless, in the dark? Why, when they’re dead and being devoured by insects and worms! In other words, I started seeing bed bugs as an unwelcome reminder of mortality.
It took a while before I stopped being personally distressed at tales such as this: My friend, a co-op owner, told me that her neighbor had bed bugs. He wouldn’t talk to her about it, so she didn’t know any details. The board was not very forthcoming either.
What ended up happening, according to my friend, was that the guy dragged his mattress down three flights, bumping all the way, and stowed the thing in the basement next to some apartments, waiting for garbage pickup. The exterminator came, a random-sounding outfit contracted by building management, and he rushed through because he’d been parked near a hydrant and was afraid he’d be towed.
“They just seeded your building with bed bugs!” I wailed when she called to ask my advice. I referred her to my favorite experts so she could at least get some information to pass on to the board. Last I heard, a dog had given her apartment the all-clear. But that’s not surprising, given that her neighbor’s bed bugs would not have had time to start an infestation in her place by then. This was several months ago. I have no idea whether her building is inspecting regularly.
Sadly, this scenario is playing out all over the city. I shudder to think about how more and more buildings are being infested by people who bring furniture in off the street, or bring hitchhikers home from a hotel, or … You get the picture.
I continued to deal with my own mental fallout. Unpacking went slowly. I got the okay from my favorite experts to take stuff out of storage, since it had been sealed with No Pest Strips, and those had had enough time to work their magic. Bit by bit I started reincorporating my possessions.
At one point I did see one defunct, dessicated bed bug inside the contractor bag holding my vacuum. This was the vacuum that I had Packtited and then stored with a No Pest Strip. And it made sense that something had been inside the vacuum. Nevertheless I felt like I had uttered the language of Mordor in Rivendell, and had to lie down.
Underlying this feeling of general malaise was rage that this problem was running people out of house and home, when informing them about bed bugs would prevent or stop infestations early on. It was hard not to think of all the things I would rather have been doing than fighting these pests: finding a boyfriend, a job, entertaining friends and hosting out-of-town visitors, helping out in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Some things are different. I was never much of a vintage shopper, but it will be a while before I hit one of those stores again (even though all one has to do is throw the item in the dryer for at least 30 minutes on high to kill potential bugs or eggs).
One day a realization hit me: I had upon occasion wished for some kind of experience that forced me to examine my life as if I were dying, only without having to actually worry about the dying part. I wanted the clarity and sense of purpose without the danger.
And that’s exactly what I got: I’d been granted a second chance at life, of sorts. I’d been forced to examine every facet of my life, my relation to my stuff, my very psychology. In doing so I had become a stronger person.
Next week: Hysteria and the itchy worried-well.
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.