Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
I have promised to avoid pity parties and hysteria. But in the interest of laying out the problem in its entirety, it is necessary to describe what I went through in the initial days in order to explain, later, how to avoid these pitfalls. What follows is how things shouldn’t go down. The bad news is that my story is typical; the good news is that it doesn’t have to be.
I don’t remember whether I slept in the living room or bedroom the night I discovered the dreaded bugs marching across my mattress—if I slept at all. I was a tad jubilant that I had found them, feeling validated after all this time, yet angry too, given my doctors’ lack of awareness of the issue. I was also totally depressed, though not sure why. These things had, after all, been slurping away at my blood for at least two months, if not longer. The only thing that had changed was my awareness of that fact. And they do not spread disease, so I was in no danger.
The next morning I called my landlord. “I think I have bedbugs!!!” I wailed. (For some reason this automatically happens. Tears ensue.) The landlord came over and brought his exterminator, who went by the name TC. He was the guy who came to spray the roaches every month. He walked in with a swagger, declaring himself a bedbug man.
“I do jobs all over the city,” he said, by way of assuring me he would lick the problem. I smiled and nodded.
“Just a minute please, I have to make a phone call,” I said. I locked myself in the bathroom, dialed my parents and started blubbering. It would be the first of many such sessions.
When I emerged several minutes later, TC had pulled the futon off its platform and was inspecting the bed frame. He sprayed some Steri-fab, a mainly alcohol-based pesticide, into the crack where the headboard met the platform. “See, you don’t have that many,” he said. “They hate this stuff. If you had a full-blown infestation, they would be running out of here like water.”
I shuddered. Where the hell had he been? Had he brought them to me on one of his roach-spraying visits? We stood there awhile, waiting and staring down at the intersection of headboard and platform. Several minutes later a bug ran out. TC smashed it with a fist. A second one followed, and TC squirted it. It died.
He examined my now-stripped futon. “You’ve got nothing,” he said decisively, finding no sharpie-like poop dots or blood smears. I had not seen any either, except for a couple of bedbug-shaped dots on my pillowcase, which he dismissed. “You’ve had these bugs about two weeks.”
Amazingly, and frighteningly, I had found no cast skins (I would find just one, weeks later, in a decorative teacup that had been atop a pile of stuff I’d shoved near the foot of my bed during the renovation upheaval), noticed no blood smears on my sheets and, of course, never seen a single bedbug until that fateful evening. Yet there had to have been dozens biting me.
He sprayed all around the baseboards, all over the floor, the walls - my freshly painted, turquoise and pink walls - and doused the edges of the headboard and platform with foam that appeared to expand into the cracks. The plywood was 15 or 20 years old, weathered and riddled with crevices.
“You’ll probably want to get rid of this bed frame at some point,” TC said, declaring me pretty much in the clear other than that. I paid him $200. He said he would come back as many times as it took, at no extra charge. (My landlord had said upfront that he would not pay because “bedbugs are brought in.” At the time I did not know my legal rights - that the landlord is bound under the “warranty of habitability” to provide a livable space, and that bedbugs, via case law, fall under that rubric.)
Next TC—and this is the first, biggest misstep in this saga—treated the mattress with Steri-fab and sprayed some other stuff around the futon’s zipper, stood the mattress on its side against the wall and told me to sleep in the living room.
I did not yet know that the opposite was actually true: I was supposed to stay in the bedroom as bait so that the bugs would come out to feed on me, crawl over the poison and die. This is standard. Yet the “baseboard jockey,” as this breed of exterminator is called, was clueless.
Thus it was that a week later I found myself tossing and turning on the sofa bed. I noticed something moving on the couch arm, turned on the light and saw ... a bedbug crawling out of a fold of material! Then another one, and another. They were all looking for food. I jumped up, looked down and saw a squished one under where I’d been lying. Then I noticed a few blood spots on the sheet. My living room was infested, and I had become the protagonist in my own personal horror movie. I swear I heard that music from Psycho. I burst into tears.
It was the middle of the night, but I figured I could at least leave TC a message.
“Theresa!” he barked, picking up halfway through the first ring. I did a doubletake, looking at the phone. Had he known they would come back? What was he doing up, waiting for midnight bedbug callers? Either way, why was I on his speed dial? I told him they were crawling out of my couch and that I was beside myself.
“I’ll come over in the morning,” he said soothingly. I had the impression he got that a lot.
Meanwhile I knew I had to sleep. I was exhausted and practically passing out at this point. I had to lie down on that mattress - for some reason it felt better to strip the bed and sleep as minimally as possible - and drift off, knowing that the friends of the ones that I had just captured and sealed into yet another Tupperware were going to be snacking in just a few minutes. They did not have my permission but I had to give it, tacitly, by losing consciousness.
It would be the most sleep I got for weeks.
Next week: How Not To Dispose of Your Stuff
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 bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.