Bedbugged! Dark days for materialism, and a cure for shopaholics

By Theresa Braine  | August 4, 2011 - 7:09AM

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

The first thing my neighbor, Ron, said when he realized that bed bugs had made it down to his and Lena’s apartment was, “Well, that could be good. We’ll get rid of a lot of crap.”

He was not alone in seeing this silver lining almost immediately. Once you realize that your apartment is infested with bed bugs, it hits you that they could be anywhere among your things, and a mental shift occurs.

First, you look around and see a pile of beloved items. Then you picture them teeming with bugs (whether they are or not).

Soon after, it all begins to look like heaps of garbage. Next thing you know you’re on a mega-purge. This is a knee-jerk, albeit extreme reaction that is yet another facet of the bed-bug phenomenon.

Here in 21st-century America, we have been taught that the consumer culture drives prosperity. We are encouraged to buy things just to have them and are persuaded to think that we are helping the economy, and thus our fellow humans, by fueling the consumer motor. Maybe we are.

Then along come bed bugs. Bed bugs force us to confront our materialism. A bed bug infestation is a great de-cluttering motivator. There is nothing like the thought of your stuff seething with insects to sever that emotional connection you have with your things, and make them easy to chuck.

(Of course, nothing should simply be thrown out; we should treat the items anyway so that no one else picks up a case of the bb’s.)

This epidemic has inspired many to stop keeping things around. It has even turned some collectors into minimalists. Although I do not see myself scaling back to that extent, I did unload and offload a lot. Things I had though I could never part with—dozens of not-yet-read books, kitchen items, old letters—suddenly looked extraneous. Into the Packtite, then the trash or the giveaway bag, they went.

This gave people the idea that I was throwing out only infested items, but that wasn’t the case at all. Few of my belongings were actually infested. What the bugs highlighted was the appeal, if not the necessity, of lightening my load. I simply wanted less stuff to deal with.

The one item that was infested enough to throw out was my couch, and only because it was old and shabby, had been in the apartment when I got there, and was thus not worth saving.

I could have had it treated, had I understood more about what I was doing. But that would have brought me into contact with my personal “ew” factor. Could I really relax on a sofa that I knew was riddled with bug carcasses and dead harborages?

Likewise, when it came time to decide about bringing the bed during my move, it was not a matter of worrying about live bugs. It was that the platform’s underside was (a) drenched in poison and (b) full of dead bugs and debris (cast skins, fecal traces). No way did I want to bring that karma into my new abode.

At the same time, our materialism has taught us not to value things in the aggregate. People tend to toss indiscriminately and then re-buy. The underlying assumption is that if you throw out the items, you throw out the pests. But this is erroneous; they are most likely in the room where the discards were kept, and will re-infest any new stuff pretty quickly.

Our stuff-collecting habit has given rise to an industry. Before the 1960s, according to the Self Storage Association, there were no self-storage units in the United States. As of the end of 2010, there were 58,000 worldwide, with a U.S. total of 46,500 at the end of 2009.

That's 2.22 billion square feet, or about 210 million square meters, of storage space by the end of 2010, the nonprofit trade organization said on its website.

“That figure represents more than 78 square miles of rentable self storage space, under roof—or an area well more than three times the size of Manhattan Island,” according to the group.

The psychoanalyst and author Erich Fromm foresaw a culture obsessed with possessions in his 1976 book "To Have or To Be?" Among other things, he wrote about a shift in attitude toward possessions and ownership that has taken place since the end of World War I.

“In the older period, everything one owned was cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility. Buying was 'keep-it' buying, and a motto for the 19th century might well have been: 'Old is beautiful!' he wrote.

“Today, consumption is emphasized, not preservation, and buying has become 'throw-away' buying. Whether the object one buys is a car, a dress, a gadget, after using it for some time, one gets tired of it and is eager to dispose of the 'old' and buy the latest model.”

He speaks of humanity’s impending evolution, in which we become detached from our possessions. In this context, bed bugs could be seen as a messenger—an opportunity, even. Either way, these pests have cured many a shopaholic. Now, if they could only cure hoarders.

Next week: Bring back DDT! (Not!) What will, and won't, kill the critters.


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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