Bedbugs and Broomsticks

Drowsing by Katie Laird from FlickrI’ve been out of touch for the past few weeks. I mentioned last month that I had slipped a disc in my neck. I was making some progress with that by doing at home exercises but eventually I had to give in and sign up for physical therapy. Then I found out that I had bed bugs.

Which has been a complete shit show.

I can’t even begin to explain the ridiculousness that comes along with being told you have bed bugs. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across something that causes such over-sized reactions in people. And there’s decent reason for some of this, but the general mythos surrounding these things is idiotic.

The exterminator came, told me I had bed bugs, and told me to contact their office for guidelines. The office sent me a list of things I had to do, most of which involved getting things clean. Clean the floors, vacuum the mattress, vacuum the couch. Plus any clothes in the area have to be laundered or dry cleaned, and if they’re laundered they have to be dried for at least an hour in high heat. Any clutter in the area, shoes and picture frames and books and stuff, needed to be vacuumed (vacuuming shoes is odd) and cleaned and books needed to be flipped through. Once something is declared free of bugs it goes into a sealed bag. The idea is to clean up the place so the exterminator can spray efficiently, but not let any bugs slip through hidden in a shoe or something.

The list of crap to do is so long that the exterminator won’t make an appointment for spraying until you’re about three-quarters of the way through, because a lot of people sign up for the first appointment available and then, when they start cleaning, realize that they won’t be ready in time.

But you know what they say, if you’re going to have to haul all your stuff around and move your furniture in order to vacuum, it’s best to do so while you have a slipped disc.

That’s probably not what people say.


My August hit some sort of symbolic low-point when I, a couple of nights after starting the bed bug process, just wanted to have a few glasses of wine and fall asleep…except my hand was so weak from my slipped disc that I didn’t have the strength to use a corkscrew.

But that was then and this is now and progress has been made. My neck is much better and my apartment is on the verge of being declared clean.

The woman who answers the phone at the exterminator’s office was amazing throughout this process. She’s also the only person I was able to talk to about bed bugs.

When I first got the news I assumed I had committed some sort of cardinal sin to bring the wrath of bed bugs upon me. Most friends reacted by telling me that my building must be dirty or looked at me like I had been rolling around in dumpsters.

I asked this woman what I had done wrong to get these cursed bugs.

Red Red Wine by Josh Kenzer from Flickr

She laughed and told me that they’re all over the place. She deals with bed bugs all the time. She gets calls from all sorts of places, rich and poor, uptown and downtown, crowded and empty. I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, I might have bumped up against someone at Penn Station for all I knew.

Now, granted, this is something I need to believe at this point. I am one of the unclean and it’s pretty soothing to be told that I don’t have to register for a lower caste or something, that I’m just another victim of a large scale problem. And so I believe her…though if one of my friends had gotten them I’d totally be making fun of his shit.

Anyway, there’s an aura surrounding these things that has given them supernatural powers in many minds. People have come to believe that bed bugs are capable of slipping through solid matter and permeating through the air. I have friends that I’ve only told via text who have become convinced that they now have bed bugs.

I was on this level to begin with, worried that they were hiding inside of my light bulbs and such, but eventually I reached a Zen state about them. They are small and they can hide in cracks and nooks and wrinkles. So clothes and books? Yeah. Those get tossed or inspected or laundered. But they aren’t inside of sealed jars or hiding in my shampoo.

I haven’t even seen a bug yet. I had only woken up with some bites when I decided to call in an expert. It was the exterminator who spotted the signs of bed bugs.

Before I called the exterminator, though? I turned to the internet. And that was wrong. The amount of information flying around is astounding, and mostly inaccurate. And I think that is why people freak out so much. It’s why I was freaked out. And then as these insects cause more panic, more people run searches on them, and then more people provide wrong information, and so on and so on. The internet told me that they were microscopic. They are not. There’s the notion that you can “handle” the problem on your own. There are stories of people getting bitten and then washing their sheets and being fine. There are online “experts” who identify basically everything as a bed bug bite. There are sites with just horrible information.

And it is this insanity surrounding them makes them so terrifying. They become some nebulous problem that can never be dealt with and supposedly credible stories pile up in your mind that convince you how screwed you are if you get bed bugs.

The process is a pain but the stigma surrounding bed bugs, that they are IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of, that they are always lurking no matter what you do, makes it worse. This had me panicked as well. And the lady at the exterminator’s office? She picked up on that. I think I sounded a bit worked up the first five or six times I called her to ask if I was doing enough, or if something was clean enough. Her answer was usually “Yes.” Eventually she told me I sounded a little stressed out and I told her that I was, in fact, stressed out because I knew how hard bed bugs were to get rid of.

She chuckled again.

Her chuckle has been very soothing to me. She told me that as long as I followed the steps, the bugs would be gone. She said that I had caught it early and called them quickly. She told me that the people who get into real trouble are the ones who wait until they can’t stand it anymore before calling an exterminator.

There are times to tinker by yourself, and there are times to shut up and bring in an expert.

I would say that bed bugs is a time for experts. And deciding to shut myself up and listen to the woman who had actually been in contact with tons of eradicated cases of bed bugs was the most calming thing I’ve maybe ever done in my life.

Which brings me to the other piece of information I was told when I was freaking out on the phone. I was constantly worried if I was doing enough. “Was I doing everything on the list the way it was laid out?” she asked. Well yes. I was. “Okay,” I was told. “Then you should be fine. Our success rate is very high.” And then this bombshell was dropped. “The people who need us to come back,” she said. “The one’s who never get rid of them and get sprayed over and over again? They are the people who shrug off what we tell them to do and decide for themselves what matters and what doesn’t.”

I’ve gotten so much advice on how to “handle” this problem. And I always respond with what I’m doing, which is the detailed list given to me by the exterminator. And people always tell me I’m nuts and then tell me what they would do. All sorts of things that aren’t on the list. And then they say how they don’t see what some things on the list would accomplish, so they wouldn’t bother with them.

People lose their minds over these things and consider them to be a plague-level problem that never goes away because people don’t follow instructions to deal with the problem because they are so worried about the problem which makes the problem not go away.

The reactions have honestly been quite interesting from my point of view. It would make a great sociological study. How problems are compounded because they are believed to be more problematical than they are.

And in the end?

In the end it has boiled down to two things: shutting up and following instructions.

Good thing those are two tasks that humans excel at.