Bedbugged! The friends and family factor

By Theresa Braine  | June 30, 2011 - 10:54AM

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

I don’t quite remember how all of my nearest and dearest reacted when I first told them my apartment (that's right, my apartment, not me) had bed bugs. My father recalled what sounded like a pretty bad infestation in the 1940s, when he was a kid, right before both my parents launched into the tale of a friend of theirs who had battled them for months.

One sister (I have two) said, “You just call an exterminator, the exterminator comes, and then they are gone. Right?” My brothers were fairly sympathetic, but I don't remember much more than that, sleep-deprived as I was in those days.

The bottom line is that when it came to bed bugs, I was something of a pioneer. At the time, I was the only person I knew who had dealt with such a situation.

The Bedbugger website is full of tales of folks who helped the afflicted sort through their things, or allowed them to stay at their apartments. I had a few people like that in my life, but on the home front, I largely dealt with the infestations myself. I encouraged this.

For one thing, everyone else had their own problems to deal with. For another, the last thing you want is to pass bed bugs to the very people who are helping you. Talk about no good deed going unpunished. Then, too, it’s hard to know what to expect from those around you when you’re battling these creatures. 

In my case, there were those who reacted with sympathetic interest, but had little concrete information, like that one sister of mine or the acquaintance who asked in an e-mail: “What do you have to do, throw out your mattress?”

If only, I thought when I read her message – knowing that she didn’t have the time and that I didn’t have the emotional energy to work through the full explanation of what battling bedbugs entails. There is no elevator pitch for this scourge.

Others were eager to give advice, the way they do with weight loss, pregnancy or random conditions they think they know something about. The more truths I knew about bedbugs, the less patience I had with these well-meaning folks. Although I tried to use every question as a teaching moment, I had my curt and even downright surly days. I got viciously exasperated, for instance, when I e-mailed a childhood friend asking if she wanted her old letters back and she replied asking how I knew there weren't bed bugs in them. 

For the most part, though, I was lucky not to suffer the reactions of the deeply uninformed. These are people who play the Greek chorus to a personal tragedy and tsk-tsk in disapproval from the sidelines, as if those of us afflicted with bed bugs did something, besides breathe, to attract them. Bedbugger is full of those tales too. 

Emotional support – to varying degrees, of course – was plentiful. The gold star goes to my other sister, who besides letting me crash on her couch when it got to be too much, came over (carefully protecting herself) a few times to help me pack and pull my brain together while I was moving.

It wasn’t until months later that she told me (bless her) that she had been a bit worried, despite her assurances to the contrary. She hadn't wanted to burden me with her fears.

The vast majority of my friends and family tended to keep their distance, sending good-luck-with-that vibes my way. Their approach was absolutely understandable, as was the fact that all four of my siblings gently interrogated me when I visited about what I’d done to avoid bringing contamination with me.

Interrogations aside, family members were always there to listen to my rants. When I wept, they comforted me and lent a sympathetic ear. My parents told me more than once that I could move in with them if it got to be too much. It almost did.

I didn’t have furniture after that first round of extermination, so entertaining was not an option during my personal bed-bug saga. The few times that folks stopped by and came upstairs to my apartment, albeit briefly, I fell all over myself assuring them – and myself – that if they stayed for just a few minutes, and didn’t go near the bedroom, and didn’t put their things down anywhere, they would be fine. Heck, my neighbors Ron and Lena had had friends over for the Superbowl, mid-treatment, and nothing had happened.

For the most part, however, I did not invite people over and I did not let people in – not even the previous tenant who came to pick up her mail. Nor did I explain why her mail was hot. (It was fresh from the Packtite.)

I did ask her whether she and her former boyfriend – they had broken up and moved out of the apartment before I arrived – had had a bed bug problem. (The answer was no, but then one of my experts said they could have been wrong and just not known it.)

Another time, I had collected some vegetables from the local farmers’ cooperative and held onto them for a friend of a friend. I did not Packtite the veggies, of course, but I did refrain from inviting the woman in for a beer. In the throes of bedbuggery, I brought the bags downstairs and handed them to her with barely a word.

Months later, I told her what had been up. “Oh, I had bed bugs too,” she said. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

Next week: Lots of people have it worse.


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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