Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how having bed bugs changed my life. That was the external stuff. But recently I was recounting the experience to a new acquaintance, and she said, “How did it change you?”
I have been pondering the question ever since.
I guess every experience changes a person, though what it does more, I think, is show the person who he or she is, highlights characteristics that are already there. A bed bug infestation does that in a peculiar way.
It hits you somewhere so visceral that there are no words to describe it.
It enacts temporary changes, such as paranoia ('They’re everywhere, and they’re after me!' -- which can extend into one’s actual relationships if you’re not careful), obsessive-compulsive behavior (the cataloging, processing and decontaminating of your possessions will do that to you) and the just plain weird ('I’m baking my shoes, and I don’t care! What temperature should the oven be for books?'). Not to mention slightly manic behavior.
So I’ve been racking my brain about what the permanent changes are, or at the very least what I learned about myself.
The main takeaway was about the detrimental effect of not keeping my cool.
I am still working on that one, but every time I find myself having a meltdown about some stress or other, I step back. I think of all the extra money it cost me not taking a bit of time to get my bearings when I first discovered bed bugs. (More on that in a future column.)
I think about how it is not worth the angst. I try not to be taken over by my experience. Meditation helps with that, and I have stepped up my efforts to practice.
The other thing the bed bugs taught me about myself is my resilience. This is not something I developed, it’s something I had, but the experience strengthened that.
Getting through a year of plastic-bag living during an economic crisis, especially as a freelancer, is no small thing, especially when chunks of that time are spent being eaten alive in your sleep.
Pre-bed bugs, I had been through debilitating mononucleosis that almost made me quit grad school, had totaled a car (I wasn’t seriously hurt) and had set up shop successfully in a foreign country. Yet having bed bugs tested all those coping skills, and then some.
Another thing that got strengthened was my ability to make lemonade out of lemons. I have done this my entire life.
The aforementioned case of mono, for instance, turned into a thesis on chronic fatigue syndrome, which subsequently became one of the few master’s projects in my class to be published.
The totaled car turned into a personal-finance story on what auto insurance does and does not provide as reparation.
(In fact I earned such a reputation for doing so at a former newspaper job that colleagues conducting a joke awards ceremony bestowed upon me the “Take My Life, Please Take My Life” prize.)
However, the bed bug experience was intense enough to combine all those experiences and put them on steroids. It tested my lemonade-making ability to the extreme.
I also backed off, to some extent, from being a ruminator. There are some things that defy explanation. Why indeed does having bed bugs unhinge a person so? They are just bugs, after all. Yes, they suck your blood. But so do mosquitos, and those transmit disease. Yet when you figure out that you are co-habitating with Cimex lectularius, you completely freak out.
I have thrown around a few theories, my favorite being that on a very primal level, something in the deepest recesses of your brain is thinking about a time when you will be supine, without consciousness, in a dark place—and being gnawed on my all manner of creatures.
Although bed bugs do not threaten one’s life, I believe that on some level they make us think about our mortality, our vulnerability.
The experts, for their part, say that the psychology of such an invasion is similar to that of being robbed. But really, they are just theories. There is no way to know for sure. So for the most part I’ve let it drop. I’ve stopped trying to figure out why it is so bothersome. I have accepted that not everything has an answer.
Lastly, and I have touched on this in at least one other column, my relationship to possessions will never be the same. I had dumped many things while changing countries in 2001 and then again in 2008, but those purges paled in comparison to the bed bug–related stuff dump. (A word of caution here—I didn’t discard anything, even into the trash, without treating it first, lest I spread the plague.)
The items were a mixture of things I thought I would never let go of, and things that I didn’t know I had. In other words, the inspection of my possessions was a journey in self-examination, in discovering my motives for keeping things, and in delving into my past. I even got back in touch with some old friends that way.
In the aggregate, the changes above enhanced who I was, or shined a light on who I was, rather than changing me. But that in itself is a change. I am now much more careful, watchful and mindful of where I sit, what I bring into my house and of clutter. Although I still have plenty of possessions, I have streamlined my existence and kept only that which I am using.
In other words, everything I went through has improved the way I handle other aspects of my life. And when is that a bad thing?
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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