Bedbugged! The fine line between educating and babbling incoherently

By Theresa Braine  | July 14, 2011 - 10:45AM

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

Over the months that my apartment was afflicted with bed bugs, I found myself talking about them incessantly. This was understandable from one standpoint, since for a time bed bugs was all that was happening to me.

It’s also not the worst idea in the world, since the experience of those who’ve battled them is invaluable to those who have not. Everyone should know about these things and how to prevent them, and we so-called survivors are on the front lines in this war.

However, there is a definite way to go about it. You can’t just barrel into the topic. Introducing it requires planning.

When it comes to bed-bug discussions, you as the sufferer/imparter of information most definitely set the tone: Too emotional, and you’ll weird out your listeners. Too graphic, and you’ll have them scratching and sidling away. Too garbled, and you’ll lose them.

Remaining matter-of-fact is key. It is also important to set a goal. What is your reason for talking about the situation? Are you looking for moral support and sympathy, or are you attempting to educate? Either way, it’s essential to keep your cool.

A great example of how to talk about bed bugs was given on a couple of years ago by a fellow who called himself “Munched.” First of all, as an experiment, he said, he told everyone in his orbit: family, friends, boss, condo property manager and “random people” he met at parties.

I took a similar approach during my ordeal, and like Munched, I learned a bit along the way. From the people who don’t know that bed bugs exist to the person who is terrified of running into them and wants avoidance advice, they all had similar reactions to my tale and my attempts at education. For the most part, they were interested, or at least fascinated the way one would be by a train wreck. If I were talking about the ordeal itself rather than the bugs, it usually made them feel better about their own lives—even a friend who had had eye surgery a year earlier and told me, "I'll take my torn retina." 

What set Munched apart when it came to talking about bed bugs is that he anticipated every psychological reaction and forestalled each one. He noted in his post that a surprising number of people don’t know these pests exist; that others will start to wonder whether they can get them from you, and that either type of listener is bound to start scratching during the conversation.

Point this out to them!” he wrote, emphasizing with italics. “Thinking about bugs of any kind will cause your mind to be hyper-aware of sensations on your skin. Most people do not know about this psychosomatic effect. It is your job to ease this fear by pointing out to them that everyone does this.

"I usually say something like: ‘Oh man! See how you’re scratching yourself? It's really interesting how just talking about bugs causes you to start noticing the movement of every hair follicle on your body. I swear, every person I tell about this starts scratching right away.’ ”

Another thing to keep in mind, said Munched, who had gotten bed bugs after borrowing a baseball cap (and, inadvertently, a harborage, under the rim) that had been hanging near a friend’s bed, is that “people will tend to mirror your current emotional state as you describe the bugs.”

For instance, “If you get all worked up and agitated telling your story, they will get worked up and agitated,” he wrote. “You do not want this.”

Even if you tell the person you are freaking out, “the delivery says, ‘I have this under control so you don't really have to worry,’ ” Munched said in his post.

His full post is well worth reading, but here are the highlights of his four-point plan:

• Introduce the topic

• Allay fears

• Recount your tale

• Educate

“It's hard going at first,” he noted. “Start with a close friend and branch out as you become more comfortable. Dealing with bed bugs is horrible, but it can be a lot less so with some public awareness.”

This can be easier said than done. I find it difficult to organize cohesive answers to the barrage of questions that comes flying at me when people hear the term bed bug and try to fill their knowledge gaps with what amounts to sound bites. In one recent such conversation, I fielded some of the usual questions, and a few new ones.

“Does it hurt?” one person asked me.

“Just your wallet,” I replied.

“What do they do?” she said.

I explained how bed bugs build up, unbeknownst to the non-reactor, until they overrun all your stuff. She started scratching. “That’s common,” I told her.

Soon after, she changed the subject. I had done what I could, though, doling out yet another snippet of information to the world at large—and, I hoped, cutting the potential bed bug population by at least a few.

Next week: Bed bugs and traveling


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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