- As bedbugs feed, their abdomen extends to accommodate the blood meal.
When we talk about food, we’re usually talking about what we eat, but a recent, uh, experience has me thinking about what eats us. Yep, I’m talking bedbugs.
Used to be, or so the myth went, they favored low-income, multifamily buildings in big cities. Or so those who lived elsewhere liked to think, distancing themselves from the poor who suffered in unpublicized silence and could not afford the thousands of dollars in treatment and relocation costs. Could this be why shame piles on top of horror, because deep in our unreconstructed amygdala is the notion that bedbugs only show up in the dirty, cluttered homes of people not like us?
But suddenly, around 2010, they were everywhere, regardless of the price per square foot.
The 2011 Bugs Without Borders Survey conducted by the National Pest ManagementAssociation (NPMA) and the University of Kentucky found that bedbug infestations have increased and are now found just about everywhere.
Everywhere indeed, even at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, where rooms cost anywhere from $695 to $4,500 a night, and libraries all over the country. Most famously of late, they’ve been found in the New York City subway system, and the problem appears to be spreading.
But still, not at my house.
Certain signs of trouble appeared almost a year ago, in October 2013, shortly after I returned from a conference in Washington D.C., where I had stayed at the 4-star Hyatt Grand Regency Capitol Hill. An itchy bump here and there, and hard to think it was a mosquito that late in the year. It didn’t feel like a mosquito bite, either.
I called a local exterminator. He dismantled my bed down to the wooden slats, peering into crevasses and seams with a magnifying glass, and then declared — with a conviction, he said, born of a Masters degree in entomology and 25 years in the business — that we absolutely did not have bedbugs. “It’s an allergy, I’ll bet my career.”
What a relief! All I had to do was pick out the one culpable variable in my rather steady life. Not much changes around here in the way of product, but I had introduced a new laundry booster, so it went out with the trash. A brief period of relief ensued.
When they returned — just for me, mind — we did not speak of the red itchy bumps as “bites.” Why give it that negative energy? Just visit the allergist, who will administer a few expensive tests (net result = zero) and hypothesize that a viral infection had provoked my immune system to go into histaminic overdrive. Daily doses of antihistamines rendered me stupid for most of my waking hours but did not, alas, slow down the nighttime events.
First, around 2 a.m., a dim awareness of something annoying; I’m still asleep, but my hands travel to the site — my throat, my ankle, the inside of my knee. Then the awful dawning, as the sensation of itching swells to a 9-on-the-pain-scale intensity — searing, commanding, impossible to ignore. Fully awake now, I stagger to the bathroom with my phone to record the evidence, as much for me as for others in the family who are unaffected and perhaps might think me imagining things. I see white, irregular welts, often in a cluster that will morph in the two or three or seven days to follow into larger, redder, rounder welts that look worse but mercifully itch a little less. I went to see a dermatologist.
You have bedbugs,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
“No I don’t,” I countered. “The pest guy said so.”
“Nevertheless, you do,” he said, pointing to a row on my shoulder — “breakfast, lunch, and dinner!”
By now, seven months had passed, along with many tubes of cortisone and countless hours of unpleasant wakefulness. You might think me slow on the uptake, but no one wants to think they have bedbugs, especially when a professional has sworn up and down that they don’t. I called another pest guy, the affable, experienced yet blessedly humble Jesse, who took the bed apart just like before — and found them, an entire loathsome swarm, under the box spring.
Bedbugs are attracted to body heat and to the carbon dioxide we exhale during sleep. They feed through the night, particularly between 2-5 a.m. when the host is deepest in sleep and least resistant, using a piercing, sucking proboscis to penetrate the skin, and injecting an anticoagulant to ease the flow of blood and an anesthetic to numb the host. Adult bedbugs can go for more than a year without feeding.
So many feelings.
Horror was paramount. Horror that blood-sucking parasites had infested the very heart of my home AND WERE SUCKING ON MY BLOOD. The disgusting sight (which I can never un-see) of bugs in my bed, and the implications of Jesse, in surgical gloves, gingerly placing my contaminated sheets into a sealed plastic bag. But that was just the beginning.
Jessica Goldstein found them partying in her mattress and managed to laugh about it, later.
Then came an awareness of raw vulnerability, the sense — no, the knowledge — that my joy-sustaining illusion of security was forever blown. No defense, no safety, never again to drift off to sleep without wondering whom, or rather, what, I was sleeping with. No home, for it felt like I had nowhere to go. My situation was nothing like that of the many millions in this world who have truly lost their homes to war, bankruptcy, weather, or corruption; their suffering is beyond compare. But for a few days — especially when the treatment protocol involved the washing, drying, bagging, and removal of every last stitch of clothing in the bedroom and the poisoning of all that remained — I was shattered. It took a good strong dose of EMDR therapy to bring back the light in my eyes.
I considered feeling shame, but ruled it out; this was not my fault. But there is a social awkwardness that sets in, paired with responsibility. One must come clean to visiting friends and those one wishes to visit, and they, quite reasonably, might decline your company for the duration of your personal plague. I will be forever grateful to the friend who said “I just draw the line at Ebola.”
But humility? Yes, this is a humbling experience: it helps you know your limits. Bedbugs don’t look at your investment portfolio to check your worth as a food source. They don’t care if you live in a tenement or a mansion, or whether you’re an indifferent or obsessive housekeeper. I dearly hope you get through life without being fed upon by cimex lectularius, but if it does, heaven help you. You will need:
- Money for professional pest control (my bill is already over a thousand dollars), not just once but three or four times, plus ongoing prophylaxis.
- Heavy duty mattress covers.
- A robust clothes dryer that can heat up to at least 120 degrees, and the time to put ALL of your clothes through a 40-minute cycle. Then you seal them up and wear the same thing for six months.
- A good vacuum cleaner and about a thousand bags, because every time you vacuum — and you have to vacuum often — you should seal up the bag and get it out of the house.
- The patience of Job, because this is going to take a while. It is wearying to body and soul.
- Humor if you can possibly manage it. Some might enjoy Bedbugs!!!, the musical, though I prefer The Onion, Cracked.com, and my favorite, the Science Friday episode wherein producer Flora Lichtman offers up a side-splitting psychological reappraisal of bedbugs.
- The support of your friends and family, especially those who can get you the hell out of the house, take you to dinner and a movie, hug you without flinching, and remind you that someday, this will be over.
- Gratitude: when you get rid of the bedbugs (and you can, yes you can!), you might still have 99 problems but bedbugs won’t be among them. You don’t have Ebola. You are alive.
Bedbugs!!!, coming soon to off-Broadway, “an audacious rock-’n’-roll concoction about mutant bedbugs that terrorize New York City.” Cue diabolical laughter.
October 2, 2014.
Tom Siani says “we have our friends in the city to thank for bringing in bedbugs and crime.”
Update, with gloves off, because another sleepless night and another dickwad exterminator. The guy who swore we didn’t have bedbugs, and thereby put me off the trail for months, was from Ehrlich Pest Control. Jesse from Siani Pest Control is OK, but his boss is not. I called this morning to inquire about the dozen crates of books we had packed up for treatment (yeah, they’re in libraries), and what I got was a rude tirade about how frustrated they were with me because they had done everything they possibly could and “you can’t treat something that’s not there” and “why would you care about inanimate objects [books] anyway?”