Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
“Oh my god, you had bed bugs? We had them a few years back. It was horrible. We’ve still got some boxes of books we haven’t unpacked.”
I nodded. I knew exactly what she meant. I was reconnecting with someone I hadn’t seen in years, and it turned out that at one point we lived the same nightmare. She had had the bugs in her apartment before my infestation, yet even she still was not totally unpacked.
“How long does it take to stop feeling like there are still bed bugs around?” I asked John Furman of Boot-a-Pest soon after I left Chateau Bed Bug in June 2010. “Seven years,” he said. “That’s how long I’ve been doing this. I don’t know of anyone who yet feels rid of them.”
He was only half-joking. I checked back with him this week to see if the assessment had changed. It hadn’t.
“I always joke about the seven year thing,” he wrote in answer to my e-mail. “Truth is, I have clients from three years ago still calling and e-mailing with questions. A lot have ‘bites’ two years after treatment. Some have even moved out of the city and are now living in stand-alone homes in the country and still panic. It definitely hits a lot of people hard.”
So it’s official: Restoring normal life post-infestation is not like flicking a switch. Take me, for example. Exactly a year after I moved, a good number of my belongings are still piled on the floor in sealed plastic bins and bags.
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It’s not that I think there are bed bugs in these items. It’s just that I can’t bring myself to open them. I’ve got a mental block. Having vanquished the physical enemy and driven the pests from our domiciles (or been driven from said domiciles), we might think that the incident is over. But it can take even longer to tackle the bed bugs that have drilled into our brains.
At first things stayed packed because I didn’t have money for furniture. As soon as I started working, later in the summer, I bought shelves for my clothes, then got a few hand-me-downs from a friend. In the fall I ditched air mattress #2 for a bed.
But a year later, there is a large plastic tub, taped shut, that I have yet to unseal. And a couple of months ago, in trying to clear the floor, I simply put two taped-shut plastic boxes, one holding books that had been on my desk shelves against the infested wall in my last apartment, and the other holding papers, business cards and I don’t know what else, into the closet, accepting that for the moment I cannot unpack them.
Mind you, the containers hold items that (a) most likely never had bed bugs in them and (b) were treated anyway. So there is no logical reason to leave them sealed. Perhaps it’s that I don’t want to think about bed bugs, so I’m literally shoving the matter into my closet.
In January I mentioned this to Renee Corea, founder and keeper of New York Vs Bed Bugs, a blog on bed-bug public policy and related matters that led to her being assigned to the city’s Bed Bug Task Force that convened in 2009. I was laughing and bemused, but she nodded gravely.
“Just be kind to yourself and do it a little at a time,” she said. I got the sense that she heard this type of thing a lot.
I had actually thought she’d laugh about my current plight, since I myself was pooh-poohing it. So I was surprised and a bit perturbed that she took it seriously.
At first things stayed put because I could not remember how to live without plastic bags, having tripped over them for the better part of a year. Granted, I started a new job and do not have much room in the cozy bedroom of my shared apartment. But I have been especially stymied of late, as time drags on and I remain partly bagged, missing possessions I know I could use but not having the impetus to seek them out.
And as Corea pointed out when I e-mailed asking for clarification, the packing itself may be part of the problem. For one thing it might not be necessary to pack up everything you own (though it's important to work with your pest-control operator on this, as everyone has different methods). For another, the unpacking involves delving into “the inevitable anxiety time capsule,” she said, plus cleaning or ventilating things that are sealed up with decontaminating substances and need to be aired thoroughly or cleaned off (as with diatomaceous earth, or DE, the micro-fossils that slice-and-dice the buggers’ bellies as they drag their blood-engorged selves back to their lairs … but I digress).
To this day I myself have a bunch of books, among other possessions, sealed up with mothballs in storage. The last thing I feel like doing is dragging that out and spreading it in my parents’ backyard for several hours, which is what it would take, if deodorizing is even possible at this point.
“You’ve been traumatized,” my friends say when I tell them I’m having trouble. I don't quite buy it. This was not a tsunami, an earthquake, a tornado or a flood. My life was never in danger. Yet my brain is simply … stuck.
Granted, much of this reaction lies in the way I handle things. I am not always the most focused person on the planet in the best of times. Add changing countries and trying to start a home-based freelance business in a collapsed economy, and you’ve got quite a recipe for chaos.
Yet my sense is that being “stuck” in the wake of bed bugs is not uncommon. Neither are occasional nightmares (though not the kind that have me jumping awake in the middle of the night as I did back when I first discovered the things). I’ve dreamed a few times that I brought bed bugs with me somewhere. I often itch while writing this column.
And although I no longer shift into high alert, my heart pumping with adrenaline, every time I see a speck, I do scrutinize every piece of lint in my bedroom. The bottom line: It takes a long time for your surroundings to feel like home again after an invasion.
That said, it’s within my power to do something about it. I have been doing a little at a time, but I'm ready to step it up. So this week I will unpack those bags and bins and decide what to do with each item. In the process, I’ll find David Cain’s passive bed-bug monitor and install it, finally.
Next week: Combatting stigma.