I'm terrified I'll be plagued with bedbugs for the rest of my life ...
August 16, 2005 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I am seeking emotional tips to handle dreading the recurrence of a somewhat traumatic event, when it is relatively impossible to predict whether or not said event will actually reoccur. Details inside.

I beg everyone's pardon, in advance, for the length. I am posting this anonymously due to the stigma still surrounding bedbug infestation; even though there is really no 'fault' attached to it, I'd really rather not have someone Google me in the future and discover this little gem. Hope it'll go through.

The backstory:

I recently found out my apartment has been infested with bedbugs, probably since late May or early June. Until recently, I thought they were mosquito bites, but my doctor diagnosed them correctly.

Practically, I am proceeding step-by-step as best I can. My landlord had wanted to use a pest control service who I believe would have simply fumigated the apartment with, from what I understand, would have been standard fumigation chemicals, which are ineffectual with bedbugs; I got her to agree to go halfsies on this company, which I felt was more reputable, as it has operated in my metropolitan area since the late 1880s (that's not a typo) and has actual experience treating bedbugs.

The exterminator will spray my apartment and my empty furniture twice, once on the 22nd to kill 90% and once two weeks later to catch the remaining 10% that are in the walls. A family member is assisting me in the extremely work-intensive preparation required: we will have to empty numerous bookshelves and videoshelves and a fairly packed closet, move all furniture away from the wall, and clean all clothing or fabric that can be put into a washing machine.

For the two weeks in-between the two sprayings, I will find myself living in an odd state, with most of my belongings packed away and almost all of my furniture in a tight concentration in the middle of the apartment, as I can't foresee moving everything back on my own only to move it back out again two weeks later for the second spraying.

The problem:

I am terrified that I will never escape these damn bugs ever. And when I say terrified, I mean that my appetite's disappeared, I occasionally shiver for no reason at all, and I had a moderate panic attack already. But this is a tricky terror to vanquish, given that it has some basis of fact to it.

The exterminator says that there are three main causes of bedbug infestation he has seen: purchase of used furniture, being somewhere that was severely infested and bringing some with you, or travel within a building from another apartment. We can eliminate the first one, as I've purchased no used furniture in nearly a decade.

That leaves the remaining two. As I live in one of the bigger cities in America and use mass transit daily, it is certainly a possibility that the second option was the cause. If this is the case, the possibility of reinfestation is close to nil, as the procedures he's doing should rid my apartment of all bedbugs, including the hard-to-spot nymphs.

But most of the 'basis of fact' of my terror lies in the third option. The exterminator says that if they did indeed come from another apartment, the possibility of reinfestation within a few months is 70-100%. My landlord is going to spray, but I'm relatively certain she is not spraying every apartment, and I'm also not certain of the efficacy of the chemical she's using.

The quirk:

It may sound counterintuitive, but aside from the physical discomfort of the bites (lessened significantly since we removed the boxspring), I don't think the bugs themselves are the cause of the terror. If I spot and can catch them, I squash them and clean up the bit of blood on my hands. I really don't find myself afraid of the bites or of the bugs themselves (aside from the moment of revulsion).

When I try to determine what is inciting the cause of fear and panic, the best I can do is that they seem centered more around (a) the thought of having to do such extensive physical work yet another time [I am unfortunately quite morbidly obese and extremely physically weak and unconditioned], and (b) the possibility of this being a continually repeating curse -- of running into these again here, of accidentally bringing an infestation along to a new apartment, of running into these again into a new apartment or a new home.

(Additional causes of the panic seem to center around (a) the disruption to my usual 'routines', (b) panic surrounding the idea of doing necessary things without the necessary supplies (i.e. sleeping on the wood floor if my cat punctures a loaner air mattress, once we toss the infested mattress, which I'll do prior to the spraying), and (c) the continual drain of funds from replacing items that must be thrown away, i.e. mattress, boxspring.)

What I'm doing already:

I am fortunate enough to have access to both physical and mental health care; my therapist knows of my problems (and indeed talked me down from a moderate panic attack on Sunday morning), and I've left a message asking my physician to consider prescribing some sort of anxiety-reducing medication. Additionally, given my metropolitan area's local landlord-tenant ordinances, I think I could argue before a municipal court to get out my lease if they did come back, but then I'd still be concerned I might bring them elsewhere or run into them elsewhere, given the fact that my research indicates both that they are hitting my metro area somewhat strong, but evidently are on a national upswing as well due to the higher use of gel bait and the outlawing of DDT.

A few final educational notes, considering I'm hoping this can be posted anonymously (and thus will not be able to reply to questions). If I'm wrong on any of this, let me know, but this is what my research has turned up, and part of what makes this so scary: bedbugs infestations have nothing to do with cleanliness (think ticks, not roaches); they are attracted by exhaled carbon dioxide; due to their shape, they can hide in a million different crevices and cracks and are willing to travel nearly 100 feet to reach their food; they don't seem to be particularly slowed down by winter; they can survive up to 18 months without a meal.

Finally, I acknowledge and am very grateful that this situation is not far worse than it could have been: there are far worse things to dread reoccuring than bedbugs, and while I am not rich, I am not so close to the poverty line that I cannot handle this, albeit not without significant financial inconvenience. Furthermore, this is not a building that traditionally has had problems with bedbugs, thank God. I'm aware of all this, but sometimes terror does not behave rationally.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you're going through this -- it sounds ghastly. I don't have a specific solution, but I wanted to point out that many of the sources you mentioned for your anxiety seem to be related to control: you can't control your environment - a) it's an apartment building, and b) cleaning won't help; you can't move the furniture by yourself; your routines are being disrupted; you may have unexpected expenses. These are all things that affect the amount of control you have, both over the bedbug problem and over aspects of your day-to-day life.

You may have already noticed this, but I wanted to point it out in case it provides a new way to approach the problem.
posted by hilatron at 5:01 PM on August 16, 2005

See what happens this time through. If they come back, move, and ditch beds, linens, sheets, blankets, etc. in the process.

The whole thing sounds like it sucks. But, it also sounds solvable, even if the solution requires a bit of work.

I can't help you with your terror, other than by rationally pointing out that humans traditionally triumph over other species. We managed to exterminate all the dodos in the world, I think that we can get a few bugs in an apartment.
posted by Netzapper at 5:08 PM on August 16, 2005

Irrational fears aren't taken away by rationalisation. If you distrust your building -- and lots of people end up mistrusting their buildings, because of fire, theft or personal tragedy -- that will take a long, long time to go. Every bite will have you wondering.

It will pass with time, but if it's an option, you may want to consider moving.
posted by bonaldi at 5:10 PM on August 16, 2005

I don't know much about bedbugs, but this did remind me of "The Pigeon" by Patrick Suskind. Give it a read sometime.
posted by Krrrlson at 5:12 PM on August 16, 2005

This may seem strange, but could your cat act as a canary? Bear with me here. . . .

You seem to be quite self-aware and clear-thinking. You know what's going on with yourself and your situation, and you're seeking help, both physically and emotionally. But it still may not be enough.

Apparently bedbugs bite pets as well as people. If your cat has been bitten too, could you arrange to stay elsewhere during and after treatment, but keep Felix/Felicia at home to test for the bugs' presence? I love animals, and I'm not suggesting cruelty to your pet. However, if you were able to arrange to stay with friends or family while feeding and checking F/F regularly, that might ease your anxiety and, if F/F stayed healthy, reassure you that it's OK to come home.
posted by rob511 at 5:20 PM on August 16, 2005

I don't have any advice, but I wanted to say how sorry I am that this is happening. It must be a very stressful ordeal. Though I've never been the type to worry about what 'might' happen, something like this would freak me out too. You've done and are doing the very best you can to prevent a future attack and I wish you all the best.
posted by LadyBonita at 5:27 PM on August 16, 2005

The Housing Office here @ The Evergreen State College has had legendary recurring bedbug nightmares.

It started 5 or 6 years ago when a visitor squatting in someone's living room left bedbugs in their wake. They return in different dorms every 8-18 months, sometimes infesting several floors at a time. The school now employs several bedbug elimination experts and owns a room full of industrial washers that can crush bedbug larvae.

When the bedbugs resurface, Housing confiscates all the belongings of everyone involved (giving them a stipend and free clothes), seals off the rooms, and strips everything down.

At one point they dismantled every single piece of furniture in Housing and put them back together with a metric assload of Liquid Nails sealing all the cracks. Still, they return, the same line of Bedbugs, tracing back to one dirty hippie sleeping on someone's floor.

My advice? Get some illicit DDT, it's nowhere near as bad for you as bedbugs. Break down ALL your furniture. Do everything that you can think of that has any possibility of killing the fuckers.

Get rid of your mattress and anything that could possibly harbor the bedbugs that can't be pulverized in an industrial washer. Don't replace anything until you are sure that the bedbugs are gone. Otherwise, your new stuff will get re-infected.
posted by blasdelf at 11:52 PM on August 16, 2005

Remember that everyone has limited energy. Emotinal challenges and physical work both consume energy. Every kind of change consumes energy. Everyone is more susceptible to irrational responses when they become chronically low on energy. To add to it all, the energy you have to spend is a result of your health levels.

My advice is find ways to become comfortable and reduce stress. Give yourself breaks whenever possible. Acceptance, pampering, tolerance for your own moods, all the order of the day.
posted by ewkpates at 9:09 AM on August 17, 2005

I'm going to start by telling you something that you already know, anon: bedbugs suck.

They suck a lot. Your fear and dread is normal if dysfunctional. You are vulnerable in your sleep. Bugs in general but parasites in particular evoke widespread dread in humans -- it's probably an evolutionary response to infestation.

Your facts on the critters are impeccable.
This is obviously affecting you greatly.

If I were you, it would be worth a great proportion of my budget to escape this situation. Can you stay with friends? You also didn't mention your lease status. An escape plan would probably ease your mind. Are you able to move if the infestation reoccurs in a few months?

I admire your intention to cope, but don't be too self-critical. If it consumes all of your time and energy, then that is the cost of the situation. If it takes $$ to get out, then you haven't paid for nothing. Based on the details of your situation, though, I'd stick around (not necessarily spending nights there) till the spraying is done, then assemble options in case of re-infestation. I don't think anything other than a series of nights in an assuredly bedbug-free locale is going to do much to restore your nerves. I'm so sorry that you're going through this -- and I hope you're feeling better soon!
posted by dreamsign at 10:10 AM on August 17, 2005

You'd be very hard pressed to find DDT. You might try soliciting on agriculture sites and see if some unscrupulous importer would give you a 55 gallon drum of it. It's technically only illegal to use for agriculture and legal to use for health reasons but the stigma and the whole cancer thing scares people off. Though a lake house in remote Kansas still had 1/4 a drum of pre-ban DDT they used to spray the surrounding area used for recreation. You'd be pressed to find any kind of bug within a 5 mile radius, it was awesome. But that's a derail.

It might help you know that your fellow New Yorkers (I'm making assumptions) are feeling your grief, and capturing like only the New Yorker can. My favorite part is the mother refusing to let her infested daughter sleep in their apartment lest they feel the wrath of the co-op board. Here's a quote that might help:
After hanging up, Linares said, “I’m also a psychiatrist and a social worker. This was a guy who’s absolutely obsessive about it. He hasn’t had a problem in six months, and he calls me once a week.”
I don't know your situation personally, but I would encourage the landlord to put up notices that bedbugs have been found and to immediately contact him. He must be aware of the expenses of not nipping this in the butt immediately. If he won't do that you'll have to wait and see if the buggers come back and then high tail it out of there, he's obviously not ready to deal with the problem. Is there even a question in here beyond just basic stress-release?
posted by geoff. at 10:13 AM on August 17, 2005

You have both my total sympathy and empathy for this horrible situation. I don't think you're weird for your anxiety, so if that's any part of the issue rest assured you're normal (or at least not alone).

I know that bedbugs are bad in NYC right now due to the fact that chemicals have so thoroghly dealt with their natural predator, roaches. I jokingly want to tell you to release some roaches in your apartment, but that wouldn't exactly help much.

Everything will be fine. Be positive. Kill the bedbugs with the power of your sunshiney thoughts.
posted by frecklefaerie at 11:29 AM on August 17, 2005

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