Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
So there I was, with my mandate to do nothing but get my possessions in order, something I had wanted to do for a long time anyway.... But what was I to do with them once they were ordered? It depends on the PCO, the acronym for Pest Control Operator, one of the first vocabulary items you will encounter in your travels through the bed bug netherworld. Some like it bagged and sealed. Some like it loosely set out, or bagged with the bags open. Some don’t really talk about it. Those are the ones to avoid.
Protocol, or the steps one must take to prepare for a PCO visit, is everything. Although there are different approaches, the protocol are in place to maximize the effect of treatment. The treat-and-baggers want to reduce the number of potential hiding places for roaming bugs and get your things out of the way so that if the insects are looking for a spot, they will be more likely to be seen. The open-baggers’ goal is to leave stuff out so that any bugs that come out looking for food will crawl across the poison and die. (Most PCOs use the treat-bag-seal method.)
All advance preparations aside, I still found myself under the gun the day before the bed bug killing rock star John Furman was to come with his version of magic potions. I was panicking, in fact. I still had so much clutter that I was afraid he wouldn't be able to treat.
My living room floor was covered in sealed bags and boxes--most of the contents of my bedroom and living room--with a path through the middle, Red Sea–style, between the television and a hideous-looking but extremely comfortable plastic-and-vinyl papasan-chair knockoff that I’d procured for $3 at a garage sale in the ’90s, which aside from a coffee table was now my only remaining furniture, given that my bed was a thing of the past and I was still relegated to the air mattress.
I was desperately trying to get rid of stuff just to lighten my load, but it was so impossible to go through all that material so quickly that I ended up bagging a lot of it, untreated and uninspected. Also, there was no place to put it once I had gone through it--all shelves and drawers had to be emptied, so it was just all out on the floor. This included a couple of hundred books, books that I had never read.
I did not want to ditch anything, even throw it out, unless it had been treated.
Extermination Day dawned. I had pulled a frantic all-nighter, like a college kid on deadline for a term paper. That morning I pulled the bedding off the air mattress as instructed, piled giant Ziplocs high in the bathtub, and pushed as much stuff as possible into the kitchen. (PCOs generally don’t treat the kitchen, since even if bedbugs are running away from insecticide they are unlikely to harbor in there because people don’t tend to spend enough chunks of time in that room to suit the bed bugs’ purposes. It’s a different story if bugs are heading over from a neighbor’s place through the kitchen, though, Furman says. He treats the kitchen baseboards just to be safe.)
Furman came on time, with one assistant. He patiently caught up on some phone calls down in his van while I finished prepping. By law he was not allowed to let me stay during the extermination, he said. But he outlined what he planned to do--subtly place various chemicals in barely noticeable quantities so that the bed bugs would walk over them unaware, rather than sense them and think better of it--and said he’d leave me a detailed list of chemicals along with the receipt after he was done.
The chemical notification is not only required by law but is also something that any PCO worth his or her salt will do automatically.
Sometimes one has to spend a night away, but Furman’s treatment didn’t require it, and I didn’t want to. I had spent many nights on my sister’s couch already, partly because of the bed bugs and partly because my Internet connection had died the same week I’d thrown out my furniture and was on deadline. I was paranoid for my sister and urged her to get inspected. She seemed unconcerned, trusting my meticulous heating-and-bagging methods of ensuring I didn’t bring any hitchhikers along.
I had to kill at least six hours though, so I decided to visit a friend a few neighborhoods away. It was a beautiful summer day, and we went to an open-air market and then to a park to lie on the grass. We lay down under a tree. The leaves rustled overhead, and beautiful sunshine peeked out from between them. I had complete confidence in the rock star.
Dreaming of a bedbug-free apartment, I passed out cold.
I came to a couple of hours later, my friend vegged out beside me. My whole body ached. My friend woke up and we hung out a little while longer. I don’t remember what we did. Then I went home.
Everything looked the same, except that in a few places I could see a subtle coating of white powder. Any pesticides had been discreetly applied, as promised. There were no pesticide puddles, and the apartment didn’t reek as it had the first time.
I called Furman and asked him how it had seemed. He said it had been a light infestation--not that that changes the level of treatment, since light or heavy, you don’t know where the infestation has migrated to within your apartment--and that “a couple had run out” when he was treating the baseboards. So my gut had been right. They had not been gone. Furman said he thought I’d be in good shape and told me not to do anything but light cleaning for several weeks so that the pesticides could work their magic. I also wasn’t to spray any aerosols, he said, because the droplets can travel and may make the pesticides break down faster, reducing their effectiveness.
It was July 14, 2009, and it appeared that my battle was over. I would have to wait at least 60 days before buying new furniture (not that I could imagine doing that at the moment) and keep the heating-and-bagging protocols in place for about the same amount of time. The rule of thumb is that you can consider yourself bed bug free if you go 60 days without a bite.
Furman was going to come back a month later to re-treat, which is necessary since the eggs usually escape the slaughter, and the hatchlings, known as nymphs (a misnomer if I ever heard one), need to be obliterated as well.
I almost didn’t care that I’d be sleeping on an air mattress and stumbling over plastic bags for the foreseeable future. As far as I knew, I was free! Now I just had to wait and see if it stayed that way.
Next time: The waiting game
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.