Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
In mid-July 2009, about six weeks after finding four bed bugs marching across my mattress, I found myself teetering among sealed plastic bags of possessions and enduring a ruined summer while I waited to see if I’d get bitten again.
It was a far cry from what I’d pictured when I’d returned about eight months earlier from Mexico, where I’d worked as a freelance correspondent for seven years. Having lucked into an adorable one-bedroom in one of NYC’s trendiest Brooklyn nabes, I had arrived psyched to start a new life chapter. My vision entailed houseguests, dinner parties, exploring the local hot spots and spending time with my newly hatched nieces and nephews.
Instead I’d parachuted in at the end of 2008 just as the economy was collapsing, watched as nearly every friend I reconnected with lost their jobs, and slammed into a bed-bugged brick wall. I’d started out as a hostess and was now nothing but a host, my main obsession bugs--or, more accurately, how to avoid infesting the people I most cared about, or anyone for that matter.
It was all I could do not to fall into a depression. I put the best face on it I could, but there were days when it was like trying to heave an elephant off my chest. Thus the summer became about doing everything possible to cheer myself up.
The experience of becoming aware that you are being devoured in your sleep by what amounts to a living organism (and often seems like a sentient being), a bed bug infestation, is jarring to say the least.
That awareness breaks upon you the way Bruce Willis’s character realizes he’s dead at the end of “The Sixth Sense”--you suddenly flash back on all these details that you’ve been subconsciously puzzling over, and they snap together into a horrifying new reality that only you perceive. As with Frodo the Hobbit slipping the evil Ring of invisibility over his finger, you are suddenly immersed in a demon-ridden netherworld while everyone around you--co-workers, neighbors, people on the street or subway--carries on, oblivious to this ghastly turn of events.
Then, in this condition, you must keep your head together to research the best solution, treat and bag your things (or have them gassed with Vikane and stored while your apartment is treated) and keep your life going even as you’re turning it upside down. Your deadline is keyed to the biological clock of an insect that can lay up to four or more eggs per day over a several-month lifespan and has nothing better to do than wait until you are lying still long enough for it to scuttle out and feed.
After my very excellent exterminator John Furman treated my apartment and the bites abated, I started to sleep again. Until then, from the time I’d realized my apartment was indeed infested, I had been leaping awake between two and four in the morning to find myself on all fours, checking for bugs. In other words I would not wake up to inspect -- rather, I would be awakened by the act of crawling around on my mattress like a deranged, caged sleepwalker. Since I am hopelessly nearsighted and usually had not donned my glasses, my face would be two inches from the surface as I scrutinized every piece of lint.
Given all this, the last place I wanted to be was in that hellhole of an apartment. After the initial push, the pressure to stay home and be bed bug food abated, so I focused on spending as much time away as possible.
I took copious measures to avoid spreading any stragglers, small as the risk was at that point. My everyday-use stuff, i.e. my clothes, were in plastic bags on a counter in the kitchen. When home, I wore clothes that did not leave the apartment unless they were going to the Laundromat in sealed bags. I also had a pair of flip-flops just for apartment use.
To go somewhere I would remove my outfit’s components from their respective Ziplocs, dress in the bathroom (I had gone to the extreme of keeping my curtains bagged after washing, so my apartment was on view to the world), slip on shoes from another bag and then take my knapsack, pocketbook or other bag out of its bag and finally leave.
Even with all this, I worried about hitchhikers. Friends were paranoid too.
“Honestly I didn’t think about you spreading the bugs,” wrote one friend after I let her know that the possibility was on my mind. Referring to a previous infestation in a long-ago apartment, she added, “How can you be sure you don’t? Curious... And honestly? A little nervous about it. Fleas I can handle. Bedbugs not so sure. Sorry if I’m being a little antsy about it now.... Would still love you to be bedbug free and come out here if you are sure....”
I can't say I blamed her. I didn’t want to have anyone over. I felt that a certain level of quarantine was warranted, and besides, my apartment was trashed and I had no furniture. Thus, invites or no, I spent as much time as I could away from home.
Since it was so hard to extricate myself from the apartment, I would create a daylong outing out of a single errand, tacking on lunches, visits with friends and other activities. If I got an opportunity to leave town, I took it. I spent long stretches of time at my family’s mountain cabin, then extended an out-of-town assignment into a mini-vacation and stretched that through the second half of August.
Since cooking was practically impossible--my kitchen was too crammed with bags of clothes and other items to be of much use--I checked out just about every restaurant along my hood’s main drag. I was exhausted and eating many of those meals alone, so I called it research for future social outings.
In short, though life was anything but normal, I tried to use the experience as an opportunity. I was hyper-aware that I had stumbled on a huge story journalistically. I could not believe this was going on unbeknownst to the major media (which has since wised up as to story potential, though for the most part they are not telling the story that should be told, focusing instead on police-blotter-style reports on where the blood bandits have turned up), and I resolved to write about it at some point. I gamely referred to it as my New York Hazing and cracked jokes about the cruelty of having to throw out my bed just as I’d started dating.
This was how I spent my summer. After a few weeks, with no new bites, I started to relax a little. I even started bed shopping, preparing for the magic day when I would start living like a normal person again.
Next week: A bite, a mystery bug and a foreboding.
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.