It starts with finding a single bug. After sending a flurry of voicemails to your landlord, the fear and paranoia begins to set in as you eagerly await a response. Your two roommates convince you that it's nothing to worry about while your girlfriend frantically searches Google and starts reading. Of course, once you get ahold of your landlord, you ask for an inspection. Multiple times.
That's how it started for me.
After weeks of uncertainty and radio silence from my landlord, I woke up with bedbugs on my chest. There was no denying it, so I started preparing the house and frantically calling the landlord. Then you get a charming little email saying that this is a "pitiful" problem and you can fix it yourself. You've only seen a couple, so it has to be manageable, right?
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The couch was tossed, much to the protest of one particular roommate. I bought a paint suit and some poison, and started cleaning the four-floor row house room by room, finding more bedbugs as I went. I told my roommates how to prepare their stuff and finished off the house with the exception of one bedroom. At this point you can guess whose room it was.
The smell hit me first: decaying strawberries. Bedbug-sniffing dogs can pick up on this during the early stages of an infestation. Humans shouldn't be able to. I knew they were there, but I didn't expect to find so many. I lifted the corner of his bed-sheet to find the mattress blackened by feces and the seams packed with eggs.
Families of well-fed monsters that are not the size of a fucking appleseed were just sitting there plain as goddamn day. They weren't hiding—they seemed very secure and comfortable. Wielding dual aerosol cans, I started blasting pesticide in a murderous and terrified rage. Hundreds of them started running, most went for the electrical outlets while the others slipped beneath the baseboard. They ran into the wireless router and through cracks in the wall.
Now shit was real. By the sheer number of bugs in this one room, I knew this had been ignored for a scary long time. I asked my roommate why in the fuck he didn't say anything. "I didn't think it mattered, they only eat your clothes," was his response. I had no way of knowing how far into the infestation we were. When you hit the three-month mark in a bedbug infestation, with constant access to food they grow exponentially. I sent my girlfriend to live with my boss while I tried to save our stuff.
We couldn't afford treatment for such a large space, so I went to a lawyer who told me to wait out the rest of my lease—three months—and then leave the house. "You could go to the landlord tenant board, but that would probably take just as long," was the best advice he could come up with before asking me if I had bugs in my clothes and eyeballing the chair I was sitting in.
Now I had to go to war. My initial assault had scattered the horde to the rest of the house. Mind you, the cat had helped spread them around, like a furry little party bus going bedroom to bedroom. Suddenly it made sense why he had started sleeping in my closet. But it was clear that the bugs were everywhere. I stopped going out, stopped turning off the lights, started disassembling electronics, threw away all my furniture, and put fresh boric acid powder in my bed every day. My flashlight was my best friend and I would frequently stop in public washrooms to undress and check for hitchhikers when I had to go to work.
Halting sleep altogether didn't help. Bedbugs like the night, but only because you're probably sleeping. If you don't sleep, they come after you when you're awake. Try taking a shit with bugs coming out of the vent and marching toward your toes. If I did manage to fall asleep I would wake up in a panic soon after. I stayed up so long that I would cry uncontrollably, and I was having trouble staying coherent. I stopped going to my classes; my grades slipped.
I went to a doctor, stammering and scratching myself, explaining the situation. A mental health exam revealed my anxiety, my insomnia, and all the other fun stuff that came with the insect horde. I was prescribed sleeping pills—the idea of knocking myself out to become an all-you-can-eat buffet was unappealing, but necessary—and a follow-up appointment when I wasn't living in such a stressful environment. I managed to do a fair bit of damage before that happened.
It's amazing how far people will go to stop the bugs. Poisoning yourself is really common, and seems totally rational in an infestation: trust me. There are plenty of pesticides that claim to kill bedbugs, but only stuff licensed to pest-control operators will actually work—and they're serious business. Avoid DDT and Phosphine or you might end up killing someone you love.
My weapons of choice were pyrethrin-based poisons, boric acid, and DE. I slept in the boric; it gives you a rash but at this point itching was a non-factor. The pyrethrins, on the other hand, are a bit more sinister—even if I was using the Mickey Mouse version the general public can buy. I can't remember how many cans I went through, but I would spray my bed and key rooms daily. It seemed totally worth it to endure the vomiting, dizziness, and headaches if it would keep the bugs from fucking in my pajamas. The first time I coughed specks of blood into my fist, all I could do was laugh. Fuck it, right?
I tried other things to slow them down while I looked for somewhere else to live. Duct tape facing sticky-side-out around the cuffs of my clothes seemed like a great idea. They still got in my pants, but they had trouble getting back out.
Eventually, my girlfriend and I found a new place to live and abandoned that four-story hive for an apartment in a nice neighborhood, but few things changed for me. I wasn't spraying poison—a pre-emptive sprinkling of good ol' Boric was all I asked—but I was still on high alert. The flashlight stayed under my pillow and I would wait until my partner fell asleep to crawl around the house and check the furniture.
This went on until I actually found one. I mean, I think I did. I couldn't catch it and my flashlight had burnt out—but I was pretty sure. My new landlord treated our apartment twice, but I was still suspicious of the things I believed I had salvaged from the old house. I kept doing my clothing checks in bathrooms, jumping whenever lint moved, and scratching blemishes to the point of bleeding. I was driving my girlfriend nuts. She would wake up in the middle of the night to find me under the blankets with my flashlight on, checking her body for insects.
"Are you ever going to be normal again? It's like you have PTSD." Maybe; there's evidence that infestations can lead to symptoms of PTSD, especially if you already suffer from a mental illness. Since most infestations won't get this bad if caught early and treated, bedbugs are seen as more of an indicator of mental health issues.
I booked the follow-up appointment and saw a counselor for a little while. I was never tested for PTSD, but was instead tossed into the anxiety spectrum. I had picked up a phobia, but that word implies that my fear was irrational. While subjecting myself to the same chemical bath as the bedbugs was really bloody irrational, not wanting bedbugs is, I think, pretty fucking reasonable.
My three-year relationship eroded over the next few months for myriad reasons. I'm not going to blame the bugs. That being said, I'm sure being a hyper-vigilant, obsessive, flashlight-wielding madman didn't help. I stopped going to regular counseling. It was hard to find time and I couldn't see myself doing any kind of exposure therapy involving bedbugs. It helped a bit. At least I could sit down on the subway.
Two years later, it hasn't really let up. Since I started writing this I've sliced open my box spring to apply boric acid and my back is bleeding from uncontrollable scratching. My trusty flashlight is back on the bedside table. When I see a discarded mattress, especially ones with the all-too-familiar knife wounds, I cross the street.
Lately, I've been waking up with bites, all relatively close together. That was absolutely terrifying, until I found a bunch of tiny spiders in the curtains above my bed. I was so damn happy to find those spiders that I couldn't help but laugh as I threw the curtains out the window.
For me there are two states of being: having bedbugs and possibly having bedbugs. The fear is something that I'm just going to have to deal with. When I think I'm infested I do the checks, set out some traps and try to calm down before I start filming myself sleeping. I try to take reasonable risks, like walking on the far end of the sidewalk instead of crossing the road. It's probably not the best way to go about it, but I still need these rituals. It's the only way I can scratch the itch inside my skull.
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