As far as personal catastrophes go, a bedbug infestation sounds fairly minor. You might even wonder why it pops up in the headlines so often, alongside all of the real problems people have. Until, that is, it happens to you.
Then you find out it's a fucking nightmare.
I did, when bedbugs infested my apartment. If your experience with bedbugs (which I sincerely hope you never have) is anything like mine and my wife's, here's what you have to look forward to ...
Bedbugs are drawn inexorably toward any warm bodies, but since they can't jump or fly, their mobility is actually pretty low. Vaseline may as well be quicksand for them, so a common survival tactic for the afflicted is to create isolated beds, using Vaseline the way you'd use garlic as a vampire repellent. You smear the stuff on the bed frame and the legs of the bed to create an impassible barrier (you can also try nesting the legs of your bed in bowls of baby powder -- the little bastards get stuck in it). But what if the bedbugs are already in your bed, or places that can't be roped off with rings of Vaseline?
What if they attack from above?
You smear it on yourself, that's what. And if you think you have too much dignity and self-respect to turn your body into a greasy insect trap, well, try living with bedbugs for a few months.
That's because getting bedbugs is like being a fan of the Chicago Cubs: Even though you know the days ahead are going to be filled with suffering and misery, you still have to get up every day and live your life. For instance, I had an active nightlife (that is, I did frequent late-night World of Warcraft raids), and bedbugs love their midnight munchies. So any time I looked down, I'd see a platoon of bloodsuckers sprinting across my desk. And I don't much like being bitten -- the distraction was seriously hurting my damage per second.
That's why the rival guild released the bugs in the first place.
So, I slathered my ankles, wrists, and arms with coating after coating of Vaseline until I resembled a glazed doughnut. And yes, it worked -- the bugs would crawl up to me, try to feast on my delicious blood, and immediately get stuck. At the end of the night, I'd retire to the bathroom to scrape off the glaze -- which was by now covered in bedbug sprinkles. I was the doughnut Satan would give as ironic punishment to a glutton.
And if you're sitting out there judging my disgusting, insect-encrusted lifestyle, that's also part of the delightful bedbug experience. Because ...
Before we go any further, let's debunk some rumors:
First of all, bedbug infestations have nothing to do with how clean you are. Everything from my yuppie apartment building to the flagship Nike Store to the NYC Department of Health has had an outbreak -- even multimillionaires like Howard Stern aren't immune. Despite the best attempts to blame the bedbug problem on hippies, science has shown us that bedbugs are actually immune to DDT, so getting rid of it in the '50s had nothing to do with their current resurgence. Hell, they don't even really live in beds: They can infest everything from train seats to wallpaper to baseboards to your fucking alarm clock.
Michael F. Potter
They can also act as an alarm clock.
And no, getting rid of an infestation isn't just a matter of calling your landlord to have somebody come over and spray -- living with the little monsters doesn't mean the person is lazy or OK with it (who the hell would be?). These things haven't survived natural selection by being stupid -- after we sprayed, the bedbugs just followed us to other rooms, indulging in the sweet smorgasbord of our shed flesh that littered the floors of our living room and kitchen. All the bugs had to do was cross a few trivial feet of hardwood, a simple task for a creature that can scale electrical wire like a crazy parasitic Spider-Man.
Oh, and despite the fact that in Massachusetts my landlord was legally responsible for exterminating my bedbugs, he still tried to con me into paying for them, dodged summons to court, and in general acted like an all-around douche -- if there was a housing law for him to violate, he did it with panache. We escaped (sans our security deposit), and as far as we know he never got any comeuppance.
Bugs just make landlords stronger.
For support, I found myself reaching out to the only group who could truly sympathize: other people living with infestations. They are clustered on a little island of sanity in the middle of the Internet called BedBugger.com. As a source of news, information, commiseration, and (somehow) rationality, I can confidently say that they are totally responsible for what tattered shreds remain of my sanity (shortly after I joined, one long-term member actually let me call them in the middle of the night and panic). Just knowing other folks are going through the same thing makes you feel less alone. Not that I ever really felt "alone" with the 7 million other inhabitants in my apartment.
So you've sprayed your place and slathered yourself in petroleum jelly. Now you have to clear out your clothes. Short of spraying your stuff with horrifying pesticides, the easiest way to kill off bedbugs is to help them reach their "thermal death point," which is exactly what it sounds like: We crammed every piece of clothing we owned into the dryer for two hours, letting those bastards burn in there for $2.50 a load. By the end, it probably would've been cheaper to bribe the bugs out of our home with a whirlwind Vegas weekend of hookers and blow, but sadly, they're only insects with tiny brains and lack the physiology to properly enjoy cocaine or human genitals.
You're supposed to put everything that isn't laundry into an oven, and since I was working as a teacher, it was very important that anything I gave to my students (like their homework) be bug-free, lest I become the Typhoid Mary of bedbugs. But I ran into a problem: Stuff like paper, shoes, and sex toys can't go in an oven. Conventional wisdom says to heat them up with a sealable container and PackTite (a specialized heating system for situations just like this), but I'm not a big fan of conventional wisdom (that is, I was too broke to afford PackTite), so I put a bunch of non-clothing stuff in the dryer in the basement, wedged it closed with bricks so the heavier items wouldn't knock the door open, and left the machine running to scorch away my sorrows.
There was logic to my actions, of course -- the type of logic that rises like a misty aroma from a brain soaking in a cocktail of fear and madness. "I have too many things to put in the oven," I sang to myself, sweetly, "so I will put them in the dryer. The bugs will burn and I will be free." One of my neighbors failed to appreciate the beauty of my logic. His naive, bugless eyes saw not the key to sweet relief through death, but a gas dryer (which used an open flame) packed with flammable shit and wedged shut. He responded by dragging my ass into the basement and calling the cops.
He was in league with the bugs. He too needed the cleansing fire.
I was let off with a warning and learned exactly nothing from this, because the fiery death of me and my neighbors was a trifle compared to the threat of bedbugs. I continued to cleanse my students' homework in the oven, which amounted to stuffing large amounts of paper near an open goddamn flame, right up until the end of the ordeal. At this point, I've used up so much residual good luck that I'm liable to die from someone else's game of Russian roulette.
But this, amazingly, was still just the beginning ...