Bedbugged! The stigma has to go

By Theresa Braine  | June 16, 2011 - 10:45AM

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

Ok, so you’re free of the bugs (at least, I hope you are). You’ve almost broken through your mental block and finished unpacking. (The exception is the potentially contaminated, untreated stuff, which requires longer-term storage so that any lurking critters will die.)

Now it’s time to confront a different, thornier obstacle: the STD-like stigma. That's not easy given their nickname of "house herpes."

I’ve touched on stigma throughout this column. It was why I held back on revealing my history when I was angling for my current apartment. I feared that no matter what measures I took to avoid bringing stragglers, or how thoroughly my previous apartment had been treated, or how many assurances I gave that my stuff was clean and they would be fine, if I let on that I had dealt with the problem my two roommates may very well have said, “No thanks.”

When Bobby, rogue exterminator #2, flushed the dozen or so bed bugs from my bed frame in February ’09, he said to me, “I’m not going to tell anyone else about this.”

“Why?” I asked. I had already texted my neighbors, Lena and Ron. 

I don’t remember Bobby’s exact answer, but it was clear he was trying to protect me, as if these bugs were somehow a reflection on me.

I never felt that way. But I definitely felt tainted for a time, and so does just about everyone who goes through this.

“Are you okay having written that essay about your bed-bug situation?” an acquaintance asked me recently. She was referring to my 2009 essay for Women’s eNews about my bed bug-induced walk down memory lane.

She didn't know about this column, and it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what she was really saying: She wondered if I was embarrassed to have revealed such a secret.

It is stigma that has people keeping this particular pest problem to themselves in the first place. And it is stigma for which I am bracing myself later this year, when I go apartment hunting again. I will be upfront about my history, if asked, including the fact that the episode is solidly in my past.

But will landlords dismiss my application out of hand just because I have used my name in the same sentence as the term bed bugs? Or will they understand that I’m actually a great resource to have on hand in case this happens to their building?

People often feel disgust, even revulsion, when their stuff is diagnosed with a case of the bb’s. Here are a few realities to keep in mind:

• Bed bugs are disgusting. The people who get them generally are not. If a person with an infestation is disgusting, he or she is not disgusting because of the infestation.

• Clutter does not attract the bugs. It simply gives them more places to hide. That influences how much they can build up before they’re noticed, especially by someone who does not react to bites. Someone who has a cluttered house and does not know he or she is being bitten, and is not inspecting regularly, may not see the discreet places where the signs—fecal traces, cast skins or bugs themselves—are hidden until the pests are so numerous that they’re out in the open.

• A clean house does not inoculate you from bed bugs. As veteran British bed-bug vanquisher David Cain is fond of saying, “When a bed bug hitches onto your suitcase in a hotel, do you think it knows what kind of house you live in or how clean you are?”

It is equally important to understand how stigma arises and how it works, if you and I are going to combat it.

When I finally came up for air at the end of that first bed-bugged summer of 2009, I wrote to a friend in Baltimore to whom I’d owed an e-mail for quite some time.

“I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch,” I said. “I spent the summer battling bed bugs.”

A few days later I got a call. “I actually think I’ve got bed bugs in my apartment,” she said, describing what sounded like cast skins and poop traces. The first thing that popped into my head was, “Oh no, I sent them to her through cyberspace!”

That is your brain on bed bugs: reaching a conclusion about your blameworthiness that is ridiculous. (Yes, her apartment was infested; no, I had no hand in the infestation.) In a way, this is your friends’ and neighbors’ brains on bed bugs, too. They want nothing to do with them—they are so averse to thinking about bed bugs that they don't inspect, and they certainly do not want to advertise an infestation.

Yet that is exactly what they must do. Imagine a smoldering fire that moves slowly through your possessions, ruining them and then threatening to migrate next door. You’d call the fire department and alert your neighbors, even if you were embarrassed that you'd been smoking in bed, right?

A case of bed bugs is about as private as a fire. Granted, it isn’t deadly, which makes notifying neighbors about a fire a no-brainer, while alerting them to a bed bug invasion gives us pause. But bed bugs unchecked do put people’s well-being at risk by infiltrating their homes and their possessions. That’s why if an apartment that adjoins yours has caught them, logic dictates that the occupants tell you so you can combat the problem together. But because of stigma, they often do just the opposite, and so does building management. Which plays right into the bed bugs' expansion plan. As Cain puts it, "Bed bugs are spread by silence."

Think of this: The bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and heat. Anyone who emits carbon dioxide and heat will be a bed-bug magnet. There is no shame in that, unless you are a vampire, in which case bed bugs are your competition.

The only way to stop attracting bed bugs is to stop emitting carbon dioxide. Not only would that cause its own set of problems, but you’d also be eaten by bugs anyway—just different bugs and over a far longer period of time.

So enough with the shame and the secret-keeping! They are just bugs, after all. Time for a reality check—and a flashlight. 

Next week: Tackling stigma's fodder: bed bug myths and misconceptions.

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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