I once wrote a note to compliment a Canadian journalist whose newspaper piece on bed bugs was very good. S/he wrote back and told me that months after s/he researched the story, s/he got bed bugs too. I asked if s/he could have picked them up while doing research in an infested location, but the response was, “No, the city I live in is infested. I just got them from my neighbors.”
What better proof could we have that bed bugs are spreading like wildfire, than the fact that people whose work exposes them to bed bugs get them, but get them via some other route?
Today there’s an Associated Press piece by Jennifer Holland, of the AP’s National Desk, another journalist with bed bugs. She had bed bugs in her pricey Manhattan apartment for nearly a year, beginning in October 2005. I saw it in CentreDaily.com, a Pennsylvannia news site.
Hers is a common story– moving into an already-infested apartment:
Mid-October, perfect sweater weather. I woke up, put on my favorite blue zip-up and went for a walk on the streets of Manhattan, my newly adopted home. When I returned, I looked at my neck in the mirror and noticed some red welts. I had already had chicken pox, so I knew it wasn’t that. And I don’t have acne.
It took me about a week to realize what was going on after I overheard my upstairs neighbors talking about their bites. Then I found out that the two adjoining buildings were infested, too.
I had just moved here from South Carolina, where bugs were the size of pickup trucks. Bugs don’t scare me. But these things did. They like to snuggle into places, to feel enclosed, to crawl into any imaginable – or unimaginable – space.
Her description of lying in bed will ring bells for all Bedbuggers as it did for me:
Their tiny brown legs never tickled as they scurried across my face while I slept. Their sharp mouths weren’t enough to make me flinch. I could imagine it, though, and that was enough.
Each night, in bed, I waited wide-eyed for hours knowing they were homing in on the heat of my body and the escape of my breath. I protected most of my body with a long-sleeved shirt tucked into pajama bottoms tucked into socks. The slightest tingle upon my skin made me flick on the light, snap back the covers and begin the heart-pounding examination. Had they arrived?
Eventually, pure exhaustion forced my eyes closed. And that was when I unwillingly became breakfast, lunch and dinner for the little body snackers. My face and neck got the worst of it.
Some mornings, there were no new bites, and I allowed myself to hope that the latest visit from the bug guys had worked. Could I finally unpack my clothes from the stack of black trash bags and retrieve the rest of my wardrobe from the dry cleaners, where I had run up a $1,200 bill? Could I invite friends to visit without worrying they might take home an unwanted gift?
Then the itchy red welts would return, and I realized that the war continued.
Holland also did not get bed bugs from a story she did, rather, she got them from a neighbor; her PCO “Bug Guy”, who came to treat her home every ten days for six months, discovered the source:
Bug Guy became an important figure in my rapidly contracting existence. For him, I kept tiny plastic tubs of bugs as evidence. In return, he inadvertently made my life worse by giving me unwanted – and ultimately incorrect – information: The tiny dark things dripping from the vent above my bathtub were baby bedbugs. Suddenly every shower turned from refuge into menace.
My two cats didn’t fare well, either. I found them collapsed on the floor of my studio apartment after the first exterminator spray. They got a $250-night stay with the emergency vet, who gave them fresh air to breathe. After that, I boarded the cats each night the bug guys visited. I chose to sleep on a mattress soaked in poison, knowing at least that this night the bugs would stay away.
I sank into depression. I had no clothes to wear. I was afraid to make any friends. I stayed late at work to avoid going home. When a sympathetic co-worker offered me a couch for a good night’s rest, I had to hesitate; I couldn’t be sure what unwelcome visitors I might leave behind.
If you had stopped by my apartment in those days and opened my freezer door, you would have seen two unlikely items: my Bible and my journal. In cold storage, at least, the two most important books in my life might be safe.
She eventually threw away everything and started fresh:
I could spend many paragraphs telling you how no one understood. I could spend column inches denouncing my landlady, who sued me when I stopped paying rent, and telling you about the lawyers who said it would be more expensive to fight than to give up. I could give you statistics that show how anyone, in any city, could end up like me, fighting for my sanity against an invisible army.
But I will not. Instead, I will tell you what it’s like to walk away from all your possessions and start anew.
The day I made the decision, I was sitting in a sushi restaurant. My dearest childhood friend, Tara, had traveled from Texas to check on me. She said I needed to be ruthless – to pick only what I needed. The rest had to go. “You can buy new things,” she said. “Get rid of it all.”
I was fighting the tears, but they were coming anyway. I barely knew anyone to trust in New York. I could trust Tara, so I let it all out. Her saying it was OK to give up my fight and throw away my things made it OK.
On the day I got rid of everything, I was militant.
Dozens of movies with squashed bugs and dried blood inside video jackets – gone. My DVD player, which disgorged bug carcasses when turned upside down – gone. The closet of clothes, stacks of purses and meticulously-matched shoes, picture frames (I kept the photos), books, my guitar, my five-piece bedroom set – all gone. I even debated discarding my 32-inch television.
Aside from easily washed kitchenware, I selected only the most irreplaceable items – the toy dog I got for Christmas when I was 10, the first and only quilt I sewed, my late grandmother’s alarm clock.
I couldn’t risk tossing things into a trash heap on the street for fear my contaminated treasures would be scooped up by the unsuspecting. Instead, I just gave my landlord the keys to my apartment and walked away.
Holland did escape but at a great price. I have to say that the odds are, her stuff ended on the curb anyway (one reason why we need our city government to manage collection of bed bug infested furniture and mattresses the way they manage the collection of old air conditioners and refrigerators). But Holland got out. We’ve heard many stories here of people who threw out almost everything, and didn’t. Holland’s successful escape reminds me of the euphoria detailed by the author of A Big Fat Waste of Time’s Tales of a Bed Bug Refugee.
That the tragedy of losing every item in your home looks like a good deal when weighed against the euphoria of finally getting away from bed bugs should tell non-Bedbuggers just how bad this experience can be.
Some people do get rid of bed bugs: in a single family home it is very do-able. In an apartment, if you brought them in, you probably have a good shot if they’re caught early, or in a building where the landlord treats every unit at once, there’s a good possibility of success, even if they’re coming in from your neighbor’s.
But Holland’s story: an infested unit in a multi-unit building, where the source is not being eliminated, and every infested unit is not being brought fully under control at once–doesn’t have a good prognosis, and the hopelessness increases based on how long they’ve been spreading (and, I guess, which wrong moves, like bug bombs, have made things worse, by helping bugs spread).
I am hoping this AP story will make its way into every paper nationwide. Why is it so important? Because this article actually conveys the story of someone living with bed bugs for a year, giving up, and running away with nothing. This is the story that does not get into print–not, at least, from a “respected” source like a journalist. When Bedbuggers tell this kind of story to a journalist, they may sound a bit crazy. Some journalists emphasize that.
But here’s a journalist telling the world she went through it: she fought bed bugs, and failed, and fled. It can happen to everyone. It can be this bad with anyone. When it happens to more people who have influence, like politicians, TV news anchors, the Mayor– then, maybe, we’ll see some action.
Be sure you check out the video associated with the article, by Jennifer Holland and Ray Kugler, which features our favorite entomologist, Lou Sorkin, in an interview. (For those of you who’ve only seen Lou in the newspaper stories, and the many views of his arms featured on our site, a rare treat!)
Lou makes the point clearly that bed bugs do cause “health problems,” from skin infections, welts, itchiness and pruritis, to psychological problems. None of this is news to us, but we do get tired of hearing people stress that bed bugs are “not a health issues” because they aren’t (currently) known to (currently) spread disease.
Thanks to the reader who tipped me off about the article.