The day that bed bugs moved in

The day that bed bugs moved in
By Melissa Wilson
OpenFile Toronto
April 16, 2012

The bed bugs moved in sometime last November.

I’m not sure how long they were squatting uninvited in my apartment, but I noticed them three days into December. It had only been a couple of days since I’d left my job as a magazine editor, and I was looking forward to a bit of time off before I’d planned to start freelancing full time. That day, I’d planned to relax and buy a Christmas tree. The bed bugs, of course, had other plans.

I’d moved in four years earlier. The building was in an area that I affectionately referred to as, “Cabbagetown—but not the nice part,” though I’d long since grown fond of its personality and idiosyncrasies, and considered it home.

From the beginning, I was vigilant about keeping my apartment spotless, fearing any sort of pint-sized interloper. I eventually lost my initial squeamishness at seeing the occasional cockroach (luckily I never saw more than a handful a year, likely having moseyed in from neighbouring units, but the critters were a fact of apartment living; anyone who says otherwise is lying), though I remained nervous about the possibility of bed bugs, especially once the epidemic of 2010 hit, and the city was on high alert. I had a couple of scares (FYI: A carpet beetle does a fair impersonation of a bed bug), but otherwise lived a blissfully bite-free existence for years.

When I spotted a dead, adult bed bug under my sheets this past December, I tried to rationalize that it was just another scare. When I lifted up my mattress and saw a pair of pinhead-sized critters running around (I now know these to be nymphs—baby bed bugs), my positivity started waning. When, on closer inspection, I found black spots on my mattress (bed bug droppings, or, quite literally, my own blood) and what looked like eggs on my pillow, I almost threw up. I was overcome with the feeling that they were, suddenly, crawling all over my skin, and I was afraid to do so much as sit on my couch lest I make it worse.

As I shoved my bedding and any clothes that had been on the floor into garbage bags, I called my mom and asked her if she would come pick me up.

“When?” she asked.

“How about now?”

And because she’s a saint, she did.

+++

The process for getting treated for bed bugs was pretty straightforward. This all went down on a Saturday. I called my building manager the following Monday. He scheduled a pest control company to come treat the next day, and I headed back into the city to prepare my apartment, which involved bagging up all my clothes and bedding to be laundered, pulling everything from the shelves and moving all the furniture away from the walls. It was a pain, but not as much of a pain as an infestation would have been.

Standard protocol for bed bugs is to treat a unit twice, two weeks apart, with the first killing all the live bugs and the second killing any babies that might have hatched from eggs since the first. Not wanting to act as live bait for any remaining bugs, I arranged to stay with my parents. After the first treatment, my building manager told me the guy had found only a few babies localized only to the bedroom, and was confident that after two treatments, I would never see them again.

From that point forward, though, bed bugs more or less took over my entire life. The process of treating and getting on with it should have been simple, and for many people it is, but I can’t stress the anxiety and paranoia that comes from just the idea of a handful of critters laying in wait in your home—your bed, no less—drinking your blood while you sleep, and infecting every aspect of your life.

I became obsessed with the possibility that I had brought them with me to my parents’ house, checking under my mattress two or three times a day. I had visions of having to abandon all of my apartment’s contents, of having to destroy all my books and furniture passed down from my grandparents. I was haunted with the idea that a single bed bug would survive the treatment, and that the whole ordeal would end up taking months to resolve, if ever. I was plagued constantly by phantom itching and the feeling that bugs were crawling all over me (despite the fact that I am among the rare few that don’t react to bed bug bites, so even if they were biting me, I wouldn’t have felt it). I’m not typically an anxious or overly stressed person, but this experience completely floored me.

I’ve heard of people developing post-traumatic stress disorder after bed bugs, and though I might have scoffed at it in the past, I can see now how that might happen. Even though I was in the best possible position to deal with the issue and the stress—I wasn’t working at the time, I was physically and financially capable of handling any prep and I had somewhere else to stay throughout it all—the feeling of dread and loss of control was overwhelming. The anxiety was so all-consuming that I hardly slept for the first few weeks after the sighting. I once saw an interview with Mary-Louise Parker discussing her run-in with bed bugs. She described them as not something that burrows into your skin, like a tick, but that “burrows into your life.” Yeah.

I didn’t hide the fact that I had bed bugs, though I didn’t announce it on Twitter, either, leaving my friends to wonder why I suddenly took off to the suburbs for a month. When I did casually explain that I was staying with my parents because my apartment was being “fumigated,” some friends accepted this, but others nodded knowingly.

“Bed bugs?” They asked.

“Yep.”

“Been there. Good luck to you.”

I learned that most of my friends had either dealt with bed bugs personally, or had a story about a close friend or family member that had. Everyone had a tale of woe, and I found the nightmarish stories oddly comforting. One girl had lifted up her pillow one night to find a whole shantytown of bed bugs crawling about. Another found them living inside her curtains. Yet another only realized he had bed bugs when one sauntered across his arm. But all had lived to tell the tale, and with the exception of a few that had to abandon most of their belongings, all had come out relatively unscathed.

Having bed bugs was a lot like what I imagine it would be like to have a common, treatable STI. Everybody gets it, but no one talks about it—until someone else joins the club for you to commiserate with.

+++

Luckily for me, I never did see another bed bug again. But the anxiety and paranoia didn’t go away. By the time I received the all clear from pest control (he didn’t find anything on the second treatment), it was almost Christmas, so I just stayed with my parents through the rest of the holidays.

When I returned to my apartment a week into January, I hadn’t slept there in a month, and the place should have been completely free of bed bugs, but the fear remained. I just became consumed with the obsession of keeping them from coming back.

I turned my apartment into a fortress of protection. I sprinkled diatomaceous earth (a powder made of ground up fossils that is non-toxic to people and animals, but will dehydrate and kill bed bugs when they walk through it) under all the furniture and my bed, and along all the baseboards, creating a perimeter. I bought traps to put under my bedposts that would catch bed bugs if they tried to crawl into my bed and get me at night. I bought a plastic encasement for my mattress and box spring, which would keep any new bugs from nestling into the nooks and crannies of my bed. If I could have installed a moat and dragon to keep the bed bugs out, I would have.

I left about ninety percent of my clothes and bedding at my parents’ house, bringing with me only two large Ziploc bags of clothes and a couple of fleece blankets, which I folded carefully to ensure that they never hung off the bed and reached the ground, giving bed bugs access to my sleeping body. It was three or four weeks before I’d even allow someone else in my apartment, because I was so afraid of being responsible for someone else’s misery. I never let anyone in my bedroom.

Simple things like taking a nap in the middle of the day, or dropping your clothes on the floor of your bedroom were things that I would no longer do. Crawling out of bed in the morning and lounging a Sunday away in my pajamas was a luxury of the past, for just one bed bug nestled in the hem of my pajama bottoms could then be carried into my living room to wreck havoc there. Instead, all worn clothes were put directly into sealed Ziploc laundry bags. For the first week, I even made a point of showering immediately after taking off my pajamas and putting on clean clothes, just in case any happened to be on my body.

I did ease up, slowly. I started letting people come over again, and became less afraid of putting my purse down on the floor anywhere. My heart stopped pounding every time I saw my cat staring closely at a spot on the wall, as I gradually accepted that she probably hadn’t spotted a bed bug. I breathed a sigh of relief after having been back for 60 days, which is the benchmark whereby it’s generally considered that if you haven’t had a sighting after treatment, the bed bugs are probably gone for good.

They never really left me, though. I never stopped thinking about them. Intent on learning more about the bed bug issues Toronto is facing, I even wrote a piece for OpenFile in February where I learned that the issue has gotten substantially worse. At least it wasn’t just me.

+++

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday, I received a notice in my mailbox letting me know that bed bugs had been found in a neighbouring unit, and someone would be coming to my apartment the next day to inspect my own. I did my best to remain calm. Even though I know bed bugs can move through walls, I’d been vigilantly checking the traps and my bedding, and I hadn’t seen a trace of one. I figured they’d come, check, confirm there were no bugs, and I’d maybe start thinking about finding a new apartment, eventually. I still liked my apartment, though it had, by that time, stopped being my home and was more just the place I slept and worked while I waited for bed bugs to find me again.

The next day, as I waited for pest control to check my unit, I started getting more and more anxious about what he might find, and what might happen even if he found nothing. Was I just a sitting duck?

I called my building manager to ask when I could expect him, and what the severity of the problem was. In regards to the latter question, he told me some rather unsettling news: There was a severe bed bug infestation on both the second and fifth floors (since I was on the fourth, I was, indeed, a sitting duck), and the unit that had likely given me bed bugs in the first place had never been treated at all, and just spread the problem throughout the building. “To be honest, I don’t have them now,” he said of his own unit, “but I expect it’s only a matter of time before I get them again.”

And that’s when I started having trouble breathing.

I’ve been lucky enough to have never had to deal with any issues particularly relating to stress and anxiety, and my original experience with bed bugs was my first introduction to it, but in learning that after all that, my apartment was now surrounded on all sides with bed bugs threw me into what I expect was a full-blown anxiety attack, or close to it.

I started hyperventilating and shaking, and I broke out in hives all over my body, partly due to stress and partly due to constant scratching at phantom itches. I burst out into tears—really more like uncontrollable sobs—and my heart wouldn’t stop pounding. These symptoms came in waves over the next few hours until pest control finally came to confirm that there were no bed bugs in my unit. (Yet.)

The confirmation was comforting, but only slightly. I celebrated by packing up as much stuff as I could fit in my Kia hatchback, wrestling my cat into her crate and moving back home.* I gave notice on the apartment the next day, paying a penalty for breaking the lease without giving 60 days notice, and by the end of the week I’d almost completely moved out of my apartment, thanks to a few more trips in the Kia and some wonderful and sympathetic friends who helped me moved my furniture.

I haven’t spent another night in my apartment since. I’ve been back with my parents in the suburbs for a few weeks, and my stress levels have completely dropped now that I’m 50 km away from the epicenter of bed bugs. I miss living in the city greatly, and it’s possible I will again, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take another apartment unit in the city without wondering about if or when the bed bugs might find me again.

As I was moving out, my friend asked me if it was bittersweet, leaving the place I’d called home for four years, and the city I’d called home for six.

“No,” I told her. “This place stopped being my home the day the bed bugs moved in.”

*As the fates would have it, the next day I got word that I’d been accepted to grad school within commuting distance of my hometown, so I’ll likely stay living with my parents until I’m through with that. Had that not been in the cards, I’d have moved into another apartment.

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