Like all good scary stories, this one begins on a dark, cold night.
One January evening earlier this year, I was lying in bed reading when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny brown bug crawling towards me. Instinctively, I slammed my hand down and killed it.
When I drew my hand back, it had blood on it. Why, I thought, would I have blood on my hand after killing what I assumed was merely a carpet beetle?
But then I thought about the hives I had been getting for weeks, the ones a doctor had advised me were probably caused by some unknown environmental allergy. I thought about the strange red and black stains I had found dotting my white duvet cover on laundry day but promptly forgot about.
I had bed bugs. I was terrified. And as I've since learned, there are few other bugs that possess the unique ability to fill us with such terrible, anxious dread.
Bed bugs tap into both our primal fears—they draw blood at night, during sleep when we are most vulnerable—and the culturally held fear of insects
"Bedbugs are kind of a perfect storm in terms of our psychology and the ecology of insects," said Jeff Lockwood, the author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, and a professor at the University of Wyoming who has studied why humans are afraid of insects.
According to Lockwood, bed bugs tap into both our primal fears—they draw blood at night, during sleep when we are most vulnerable—and the culturally held fear of insects. That bedbugs are also difficult to kill gives them what Lockwood describes as a vampiric quality in our minds. "All of that taps into our anxieties about being invaded; being penetrated," he said.
When journalist Brooke Borel, the author of Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, told people she was working on a book about bedbugs, they often replied that an infestation was their worst fear.
It's hard not to see why. Bed bugs come out while you sleep and feed for up to 15 minutes, and hide the rest of the day in small cracks and crevices. They are difficult to exterminate and tough to see unless you know what to look for. Getting an infestation is a fear many city dwellers have, and dealing with them can be a nightmare.
But unlike, for example, mosquitos, which are responsible for spreading diseases such as malaria and West Nile Virus, bed bugs aren't known to transmit disease, according to the Center for Disease Control. And, as Borel points out, we'd never be ashamed of having a mosquito bite the same way that people are when they have bedbugs.
Simply put, we still buy into an old bed bug stigma. "We associate bedbugs with filth," Lockwood said. "Which of course just completely false." But that stigma is still the source of a great deal of distress and anxiety for those unlucky enough to get them.
"People who have bed bugs tend to socially isolate themselves," said Dr. Stéphane Perron, a physician working at the Montreal public health department and professor at Université de Montréal and McGill who has studied the psychological impacts bed bugs have on people. In a study he and his team published in 2012, Perron found that people who had bed bugs were at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Case in point: after an exterminator told me that I could have gotten my bugs from sitting on subway seats or checking out library books—activities otherwise known as "living in a large city"—I refused to do either for months, standing the full hour for my commute every day. When I finally moved to a new apartment, I pulled my mattress—brand new, of course—into the middle of my bedroom and placed four strips of double-sided carpet tape around the perimeter, a sticky little moat to protect me from what had become my worst fear.
The longer person has to deal with bedbugs, the more likely it is their mental health will continue to deteriorate
Some anxiety is a normal response to bed bugs according to Perron (in fact, someone who has no anxiety may allow an infestation to grow out of control). But the longer person has to deal with bedbugs, the more likely it is their mental health will continue to deteriorate. In Perron's clinical practice at Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, sleep disturbance is a frequent complaint, as are the repercussions a sleepless night can have on a person's day-to-day functioning.
A stressor like bed bugs can also wreak havoc on preexisting mental health conditions. In a case study Perron worked on with Stephanie Burrows, an assistant professor at the University of Montreal, and Stephanie Sussers, they profiled a woman with several mental health conditions who suffered from multiple bed bug infestations. Eventually, she committed suicide. They believed on-going bed bug infestations were the likely trigger.
Though Burrows said that was an extreme case, it was important to study because there is so little research on the impact bed bugs have on mental health. "There could well be other cases," Burrows said—we just don't know about them.
While doing interviews for her book, Borel saw what made a difference in how people handled their infestations. "People who had good support networks of friends and family who didn't shun them were doing better," she said. "People who were isolated who were doing worse."
Having a bed bug infestation sucked. But I had my parents, who provided financial support—both for big expenses, like $200 mattress encasements, and loose change to help pay for the 20 loads of laundry I did—and emotional. (They comforted me during a breakdown, when I thought I would have to throw out my whole library—a measure that, in the end, proved happily unnecessary.)
I told very few friends, initially, because like so many bed bug victims before, me I was embarrassed. I didn't want them to think that my infestation could somehow pass to them. But when I did eventually share what had happened, a pattern emerged. People were shocked, but they also had a story of their own story to share—a friend of friend that got bed bugs when he moved into a new condo, perhaps, or the cousin that lived in college dorm with an infestation on the floor above.
"We're animals and we have parasites," Borel said. "It's not something that we like to think about—we like to think about us as not being part of that world—but we are, and I think that talking about those things and destigmatizing it is helpful."
In the end, this proved a better balm to my anxiety then hiding what had happened. And eventually, I removed the tape from around my bed. I went back to the library. And, yes, I sat down on the subway once again.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.