For the past four days, it’s been hard for me to breathe. I moved through nausea and dizziness; my neck hurt so much that my sleep was broken. I ate ice cream, which is my own private heroin. This morning I stood in the middle of my apartment, looking at what I had found to make my life comfortable: bright, cheap Ikea furniture, Thai fabric, a small collection of books, and a shelf of DVDs and some music. Not much, but I like it that way.
Right now I’m panting a little and my muscles feel slack after days of being clenched and knotted. My life as I live it feels like a gift, one that I won’t lose immediately. A dog spent two minutes or less sniffing my belongings and decided I don’t have bedbugs.
If you have never had them, you don’t know how this feels, but from the moment I saw the notice on my door saying that there would be a building-wide inspection for bedbugs, I felt frightened. No matter that I didn’t have the bites or the tell-tale flecks on my white sheets and pillowcases, my fear was deep, irrational, and overwhelming. It was not, as a gruff friend once said, a matter of “mai pen fucking-rai” or a big tempest in a coffee mug. It is quite simply “the horror.”
My introduction to bedbugs wasn’t a gradual one. I turned on the light in a Malaysian hotel room and found them all over my bed and on the floor. They had been on my body; that’s what made me turn on the light. The bites came later, popping out the next night, after I’d moved out of that room. There were over a hundred of them, and the itching was almost more than I could stand. The marks of the bites stayed with me, leaving dark freckles that still haven’t all faded away, four years afterward.
When I moved back to Seattle, I found the city was in the throes of a bedbug invasion. My landlord gave me a handout on what to do if I discovered I had them, but because they came to me, not in a horde but in a slow increase of population, I was in denial for four months.
During that time, I turned to the internet, read dreadful stories that I assured myself were not what was happening to me, bought lavender oil, peppermint oil, and Boraxo. Still the bites kept coming. When I showed my landlord my left arm, covered in bites, he said, “We’ll get the dog to come in.”
A month later, the bedbugs were gone. So was my bed and all of my bedding; I never felt comfortable in that apartment again. Three months later I moved to the place where I live now. The first thing I did was sprinkle my bedroom floor and my bed with generous helpings of diatomaceous earth. I would have used garlic and crucifixes if I had thought that would keep my home bedbug-free.
I used to buy clothing from Value Village, delighted with the cashmere sweaters I brought home for ten dollars—not anymore. Even from high-end thrift shops, anything I buy goes straight into a dryer on high heat for half an hour. Library books and used books go into my tiny freezer for three days before I read them. When I go to a hotel, the first thing I do is peel away the bedding and look for dark spots on the mattress. And I would never ever buy anything from Craigslist or a rummage sale. When I ride a bus or when I board a plane, I come very close to praying.
Bedbugs come with connotations of filth and negligence, which is one reason we don’t talk about them. A deeper reason is a lack of understanding; people who haven’t had them in their midst have no idea of the pervasive misery they bring. Anyone who has had them never again feels an unexpected touch without alarm as they begin to fall asleep. A whisper of hair, a random brush against a sheet when you don’t expect to feel one, even a twitch of a muscle carries fear.
Imagine a roomful of mosquitoes that you can’t see and that come to bite you as you sleep, every hour of the night. Eventually you won’t be able to fall asleep. Exhaustion mixed with paranoia is not a state anybody wants to be in, but that’s where bedbugs take you.
In extreme cases, they take your belongings. I’ve read about people who have had to throw away treasured books and expensive electronic equipment. Bedbugs like the dark warmth of computers and television sets.
As far as beds go, perhaps it’s possible to steam-kill any lurking vermin and bedding can be dried at high heat but I guarantee that bed, that comforter will never allow you a trouble-free sleep again.
And then there’s the mad variety of fear. Bedbugs are the closest we modern folk will ever come to Dracula. They feed on our blood when we’re peacefully unconscious. They come to us in the dark. They have a dreadful power; they can live for months without eating, and few things can kill them. Think about that as part of your life, every night.
Bedbugs carry no disease and only 30% of those people bitten by them have symptoms. The bites are an allergic reaction to the anesthetic saliva that bedbugs release so their victims won’t feel them at work. One man told me that he had no idea he had them until one night he saw one on his bed. I don’t know about you but for me that is undistilled horror.
I’m lucky to live in a place where inspections come annually and in response to cases that crop up during the year. Even more am I lucky that the dog found nothing that will make my life hell. Those of you who have gone through this will know what I mean. The rest of you, count your blessings and be careful.