6 Horrific Realities of Living With a Bedbug Infestation
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 ...
You Will Cover Yourself in Vaseline
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 ...
You Will Be Unfairly Judged
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.
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.
You Will Be Driven to Dangerous Measures
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.
Who needs vaginas when you can just stab your mate's tummy?
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 ...
You Will Have to Destroy Your Belongings
With our clothes scourged like LV-426 at the end of Aliens, we realized it was time to nuke our furniture from orbit as well -- which meant throwing out everything we owned.
Because no hope remained. Also, the stuff was infested.
But throwing out your belongings is harder than you think -- particularly if your goal is not to infect a bunch of strangers' houses with biting insects. Although we took precautions (wrapping our rugs and sheets in garbage bags, sealing them with duct tape, and labeling them with the word "bedbugs" and a cartoon picture of a mean-looking insect with frowny eyes), the dumpster scavengers were undeterred. In fact, while depositing our second load of plagued goods, we found some unwitting schlub collecting our very first load. He ignored our protests, threw the bag of bug-infested goods over his shoulder, and sauntered off, whistling a little tune like some kind of Johnny Fucking Appleseed of bedbugs.
From then on, we knew the only way to avoid spreading our curse to others was to destroy everything we owned. We disassembled our futon and then smashed it with a hammer. I threw our TV into the dumpster hard enough to shatter its screen. My desk was cathartically splintered by my renfair ax.
Then my ax was cathartically cleaved by my bare hands.
And no, we weren't just being paranoid -- the infection of others' homes through casually repossessed furniture is a bigger problem than you might hope. Boston, for example, is home to something called Allston Christmas, in which students from its roughly 7 billion colleges move out and leave most of their furniture on the curb. Guess what happens when you take that furniture home. Bedbugs. Bedbugs happen.
After Everything, You May Still Have to Flee Your Own Home
After two months of sealing our clothes in plastic bags the size of Godzilla condoms, scrubbing our bodies with buckets of isopropyl alcohol, and three failed pesticide treatments, we finally found the solution to our problems: retreat. That's right. We moved out of our apartment. The bedbugs won.
And a hundred generations will feast on the skin flakes we left behind.
But our ordeal wasn't over: To make sure we didn't bring any of the vermin with us, we had to conduct a "truck-based treatment," which means we rented a U-Haul and turned it into an insect abattoir -- and, somehow, "loading everything you own into a truck and then baking it" is even more complicated than it seems.
First, we needed a propane permit, which meant we had to explain to a bunch of skeptical firefighters that this process wouldn't combust our crap. Second, we couldn't just throw our stuff in the U-Haul and be on our way -- we had to pack the truck carefully, making sure the air would be circulating and there would be no cool pockets for the flesh-eating bastards to hide in. And finally, we had to park a truck on a busy Boston street and hope no curious Sox fan wandered in and died of stupidity next to our mattress.
The truck sucked in and killed a couple of LaRouche supporters, but what can you do.
It looks crazy, and it worked. The guys hooked up the machine, we all took turns watching it heat, and then we got a pizza and just hung around for eight hours. Once we finished, we let our newest best friends drive off in their pickup and moved into our new apartment.
The infestation had cost us something close to $5,000 once all was said and done. Take a moment to imagine all of those people who A) don't have the money to do this and B) don't have the option to move. Oh, and it also cost my sanity.
That's because here is where I hit rock bottom. After weeks of torment, a hard day of moving, and the sweet relief of finally roasting every bug left on my personal belongings, I stripped off all my clothing to discover two massive bites on my leg. I panicked. The idea of all this expense and inconvenience being pointless sent me into a downward spiral, knowing that it all might have been for nothing.
You Will Be Scarred Forever
My new place, as it turned out, was bedbug-free. I didn't believe it until they brought in a bedbug-sniffing dog (yes, those exist, and they are the most wonderful things in the world) to convince me.
The place had hidden carpet bacon and bathtub ghost cats, but nope, no bedbugs.
It turns out my psyche has been irrevocably warped by this experience. I'd call it PTSD, but that insults everyone who has experienced worse shit than mere bedbugs. Instead, I'll draw on my years of psychological training (seriously) to bullshit a new name: PBI, or post-bedbug insanity.
To get an idea of how my brain works now, take a look at the chaos around your computer. Check out that little black dot near the mouse. Is it lint? A food particle? A stray dingleberry? Or is it a bedbug? Now take off your pants and contemplate all the random red spots that have sprouted since you last inspected your legs. Is that new splotch an ingrown hair? A wildly inaccurate crotch piercing? Or is it a bedbug bite?
Are those bedbugs? And why does my neck now swivel 180 degrees? But mainly, are those bedbugs?
This is how I think now. Any stray speck of dust creates an instant rush of fear. Whenever I see a yard sale, it's all I can do to stop myself from screaming inane warnings and dousing each piece of furniture with gasoline. I've spent more time on my knees in hotel rooms than the average congressional aide, but I'm searching the mattress for evidence of an infestation instead of angling for a promotion.
And I'm not alone. People who experience bedbug infestations can end up depressed or socially anxious, start hallucinating, or other things that are way too depressing for a comedy article to get into. You might be thinking, "Oh, it's just insects," but that's because you don't understand how this problem gets under your skin and inside your brain and festers. Hold on -- I have an itchy lump near my elbow right now, and I was recently on an airplane. These must be bedbugs.
Excuse me, I need to go take a bath in isopropyl alcohol.
Related Reading: Cracked is just lousy with personal experience articles that aren't quite so louse-y. We've also got the inside scoop on life inside a mental institution. And beyond that we've got stories of escaping Scientology and palling around with Somali pirates.