My New York apartment is infested with bedbugs. While this is something that, in most people, causes anxiety, depression, and possibly even PTSD, my infestation has brought me to a more enlightened state of existence. Something about the complete upending of my normal daily routine has been liberating.
Dr. Steven Brodsky, a psychotherapist in New York who specializes in OCD, has treated dozens of people who have been shaken by the pests. “It is very traumatic,” explained Brodsky in a phone interview. “People endure either shame and secretiveness, or unfortunately sometimes ostracism and isolation. It is very, very hard knowing how little control people have over it… people are just terrified.”
During an infestation, one’s entire life becomes consumed by a never ending campaign to get rid of the creatures. Cohabiting with them often gives people a sense of intense paranoia, leaving you wondering if every speck of dust or loose sunflower seed is a bug. All of the products I’ve bought off Amazon to combat these beasts (organic bedbug killer, duct tape to seal potential entryways, plastic coaster moats that my bed sits on) have proven to be of little help. The best way to tackle them is with a chemical treatment, which means living out of black plastic trash bags for weeks on end. But even that isn't guaranteed to get rid of them.
Brodsky told me of one couple that he knew that was so affected mentally by the bugs that they ended up spending around $25,000 trying to get them out of their lives.
Matt Moers, co-owner of New York’s EZ Bed Bug Exterminator, explained to me that such drastic measures are often brought about by misinformation, but that the mental hell that people enter through these misconceptions is very real. “I had one customer who didn’t see their daughter for over a year because she didn’t want to give her daughter bedbugs,” said Moers. “She was depressed. They definitely can impact you life.”
So how is it that my infestation left me feeling good?
My original suspicion was that the bugs had gone into my nasal cavity while I was asleep and had gnawed away at my prefrontal cortex. It turns out, however, that bedbugs are happy enough with blood in easy to bite areas and that a bedbug lobotomy is probably an unlikely scenario.
What is more likely is that the bedbugs and the 24/7 fight to remove them has exploded the monotonous routine of my melancholy city life and allowed me to stand on the mountains of rubble and see the skies of possibility from a fresh vantage point. I hadn’t realized the extent to which working absurdly long hours at a stressful job in midtown Manhattan and having to ride (and rely on) the subway every day was grinding me down. After having my routine shaken, the toxic elements of my daily life became a lot more visible.
I now have a lot less time to manage other concerns that used to be at the top of my bullshit-to-take-care-of list, and this has proven to not be such a bad thing. Many of my old problems like arguments with friends or coworkers are something that I just don’t have time for now. I’ve been reminded how the mind will inflate whatever problems are in the foreground of its attention to seem like the end of the world, but when a bigger problem arises even our worst ones will become miniscule.
The bedbug experience has also made me more social, acting as a unifier for the tenants in my apartment building. There are four apartments, and before the infestation my relationship with my neighbors was defined by the two or three times we’d said hello to each other in the hallway. Now that we are under attack, we’ve been able to bond in our battle against our common enemy.
We can’t avoid each other in our dozens of trips to the laundromat dryers to toast the bugs off our belongings, and when our neighbors scowl at us because they know exactly what the fuck we are doing as we hobble back and forth between our apartment building and the laundromat with huge black plastic trash bags hung over our shoulders, we endure their scowls together as a team.
Sure, I haven’t been getting much sleep, but, as a result, I’ve been getting that no-sleep high, and have turned into a giddy lunatic with a mind somehow less adhesive to everyday worry and logic.
I’ve also been able to use these sleepless nights as an opportunity to learn. Not just about myself, but about a species that I had known relatively nothing about before all of this. I hadn’t known, for example, that bedbugs mate via a process called “traumatic insemination,” where the male punctures the abdomen of the female and injects his sperm directly into the wound.
This kind of information doesn’t ease the experience of having bedbugs, but it is interesting to know that this fascinating process might be going on inside your couch or bed.
My apartment has also become a lot more minimalist and I have more space to think. All of the detritus that used to be scattered around has been quarantined off in a black mountain of trash bags. I’ve whittled down the objects that I can readily access to the bare essentials.
According to Dr. Brodsky, such experiences can be eye opening as to how little the bullshit we collect actually matters.
“As all of these people's stuff is being thrown out the window essentially, and their entire lives upended, it is an extremely humbling experience,” Brodsky explained. “They realize just how much of their identity has been wrapped up in relatively meaningless material possessions.”
The bedbugs may have drunk my blood, but in return they have fed me powerful lessons. The mental hell that they’ve brought me has legitimately made me wonder whether our species evolved alongside one another for the sole purpose of of learning such lessons. I wouldn’t recommend actively seeking them out, but if New York or wherever you’re living ever does hit you with the bedbug challenge, my advice is to open your mind and try to learn a few lessons on the long sleepless road ahead.
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