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Bedbugs

I'm telling the whole story, in excruciating detail nobody asked for. It was cathartic to write it, and I hope someone somewhere finds it helpful. For those who don't want to wade through all the bedbuggery below, here's the condensed version:

First, we launched chemical warfare with spray bottles of poison bought from Amazon. That stuff kills only a few bedbugs at a time, but doing it thousands of times, we reduced their number in the living room, the spare bedroom, the bathroom and the hallway, until the bedbugs seemed to be thriving only in the bedroom.

And then, a tactical retreat: We moved out of the bedroom, entering only once daily with more poison, killing more bedbugs and slowly starving the rest of them to death. 

 ♦ ♦ ♦

Living with bedbugs is awful, but the experts say that getting rid of them — without hiring an exterminator — is virtually impossible. We couldn't afford an exterminator, so we did it ourselves, even though we really didn't know what we were doing. And we won. Our apartment has been bedbug-free for almost two years now.

In the beginning, we noticed the little brownish-red invaders on our couch in the living room. And then, on my wife's jacket in a restaurant, and carried to work in my backpack. It took us a few days to connect the weird new bugs with the bites on our bodies, but after a quick Google we understood the bad news.

We scoured the apartment to see how bad our infestation was, and it was quite bad. There were bedbugs in the couch and inside the couch, and in the bed, in the dresser drawers, in the cat's favorite sleeping areas, and pretty much everywhere in our two-bedroom apartment except, curiously, we never saw any bedbugs in the kitchen.

We dragged the sofa outside by the dumpster, and being good citizens we left a sign superglued to the fabric: "This couch has bedbugs."

We spent an afternoon Googling the legalities, and soon understood that bedbugs are the landlord's responsibility. However, for reasons too long and complex to elaborate, we believed that if we told our landlord about the bedbugs, we'd be vulnerable to eviction, a rent increase, or just being hassled.

For the next five years, the bedbugs were our roommates. We'd be OK, we decided, with being bitten once in a while, if we could keep the bedbugs from feasting on us. All we wanted was a stalemate, if possible.

We grew accustomed to the tickle of tiny Cimex lectularius crawling through the hairs on our arms, their always-itching bites, and the unmistakable crunchy squishing sound of another bedbug being crushed between fingernail and wall.

We made inquiries to see what an exterminator would charge, and got quotes ranging from $1,250 to a bit more than $2,000. We would also have had to vacate our apartment for four days, so factoring in the costs of a hotel, meals out, and boarding for our cat, the bedbugs would evaporate our rather anemic bank account.

And even if we'd gone through all that and spent that money, there are no guarantees. We'd read horror stories of resilient bedbugs surviving the treatment and returning even hungrier and heartier.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars for an exterminator, we spent hundreds of dollars buying anti-bedbug products, scrutinizing the reviews on Amazon to, we hoped, avoid paying good money for nothing.

Our first purchase was a mattress protector like this one, though I'm not sure this is exactly the one we bought. It zippers your entire mattress in a protective covering that's supposed to be insect-proof, and almost is. The problem was the zipper itself — the bedbugs loved the zipper. It's exactly the kind of hiding space they love, so the zipper quickly became the bedbugs' favorite nightclub. Lift the narrow flap of fabric covering that zipper, and you'd always find a flurry of bedbugs sleeping there. Keeps 'em out of the mattress itself, though.

We bought a lot of After-Bite, a pen-shaped device that drips a soothing liquid onto insect bites. It's not expensive and it works well; drip some of this onto a bedbug bite (or a mosquito bite) and the itch is gone, for a while. You'll need to re-drip it an hour or two later, but the good news is, those little pens never run dry unless you leave the lid off. Even an After-Bite that's years old still drips, and still works.

We bought anti-bedbug spray that had fairly good reviews on Amazon: first this brand, which we used for about three years, and then when its effectiveness seemed to be fading we switched to this spray. (We bought both brands from Amazon, but they no longer sell the first brand, hence the link leads to eBay, where it's still sold).

These sprays absolutely work. They kill bedbugs on contact, but only on contact. Spray a bedbug and watch it die, but the bedbugs two feet away are unaffected, and the bedbugs who walk over the corpses of their dead siblings a few minutes later are also blithely indifferent to the spray. To kill bedbugs with the spray, you have to spray the chemicals right onto their hideous six-legged bodies.

We bought lots of these "interceptors", designed to catch bedbugs as they climb from the floor up the legs of the bed, the couch, the tables and dressers and nightstands. Do these interceptors work? Well, sort of. They're unsightly as hell, big round tubular saucers under the legs of everything, and they announce "bedbugs" loudly to anyone who steps into the apartment. They also get dusty within a few weeks, and when they're dusty they no longer catch bedbugs; the slimy blasted insects can get their footing on the dust and escape, climbing upward to further their infestation.

That said, the interceptors do catch some of the bedbugs. Not enough to make a difference, but if you're not certain whether you have bedbugs, the interceptors will clarify that for you.

Without the interceptors, or when the interceptors get dusty, bedbugs climb. It's their instinct, and it's just about the only thing they do besides sucking blood. They'll climb the legs of beds, chairs, a coffee pot, anything, including your legs.

And they're constantly climbing the walls. At the height of our bedbug battles, I was killing a dozen bedbugs daily just on our walls. You'd see a tiny speck of brownish-red, walk over and gently explode it with your fingernails. You have to do it gently, because if you miss you won't get a second chance; the bug will fall to the carpet and never be seen again. And I say "explode" because literally that's what happens when you smack a bedbug — it's like a tiny balloon full of blood it's sucked out of you, so squish it and it detonates and you're left with a big bloody blotch on the wall.

We considered all sorts of anti-bedbug powders, but decided not to try that tactic, because we were concerned that it might kill our cat.

So we kept the bedbugs "under control" by killing them wherever we found them. Mostly they lived on the zipper of the mattress protector, but also in the sheets, the blankets and pillowslips, and on the walls, on tables and shelves, in our clothes, on our bodies, on our cat, inside a bag of cat food we'd failed to fully seal, behind the plaques on the wall, crawling across our computer keyboards, under the toilet, inside our books, inside our shoes, in our nightmares, and in any darkened corner of the apartment.

We tried very hard to avoid spreading the bedbugs. By habit we shook and snapped every article of clothing as we dressed, every day, week after month after year. We scrutinized and banged our shoes. My wife and I inspected each other every time we left the apartment, and looked carefully through everything we were carrying. We never saw a bedbug in our car or on ourselves or our clothes outside the apartment, at least not after those first weeks when we didn't know what we were doing or what we were up against.

We spent an hour on patrol once weekly, spraying the poison wherever we found the enemy, and where it seemed likely they might be, even if we didn't see them. We sprayed the floorboards and the windowsills, the doorjambs and closets, inside our desks and the floor near the legs of every piece of furniture. And always, more than anywhere else, we sprayed the zipper on the mattress, because that was downtown Bedbug City.

We thought we were doing pretty darn good, because we weren't being bitten as often as we had been for the first several months. Instead of half a dozen bites daily, we were suffering half a dozen bites weekly, and sometimes even less than that.

Once in a great while when we'd forgotten to do our weekly spray assault, the population of bedbugs noticeably increased. We pondered what that might mean — that the weekly patrols had been effective — so we increased our attacks from weekly to twice weekly. And soon, there were fewer bedbugs to find and kill, so we increased our attacks to every other day. At some point we didn't see any bedbugs at all for an entire day, which my wife and I celebrated with our wildest sex in years.

Based on everything we'd read, of course we knew that bedbugs couldn't be defeated by this strategy, only kept under control. Eradicating them without an exterminator is impossible, right? And yet, by this time we rarely saw bedbugs outside of the bedroom. Was the living room really ours? It felt like we had captured key territory in a land war, so we went even more on the offensive.

We abandoned the bed and the bedroom, sleeping instead on a new, protective-wrapped futon in the living room. We entered the bedroom only once daily, but did so every single day without fail, to seek and spray and slaughter every bedbug we could find. Other than that, we left the bedroom door closed. Our daily attacks in the bedroom yielded fewer and fewer of the tiny monsters, and beyond the bedroom it became more and more rare to find them crawling the walls.

Eventually, we had two bedbug-free days in a row. On days when there were bedbugs to kill, there were only a few. After perhaps a month of dwindling body counts, it wasn't uncommon to go three or even four days with seeing a bedbug. Then, due to a family emergency, we left our apartment for several weeks.

Upon our return, we resumed our daily patrols … but found nothing to kill. We still went bedbug-hunting, every day, but where were they hiding? After a week, we took a calculated gamble and skipped patrolling for just one day, expecting that tomorrow we'd see live bedbugs again, not just the dried dead ones. We lifted the zipper-flaps all around the edge of the mattress, we looked closely at every occasional dot on the wall, but found no bedbugs.

We lived in the living room for several months, just to be safe, before we began talking about reopening the bedroom. The mattress, of course, was a catastrophe, but it was a dead catastrophe. There were no living bedbugs, but we dragged the mattress outside and dropped it in the dumpster anyway. No note was needed this time — the bedbugs were obvious. The mattress's anti-bedbug protective cover, originally white, was mostly brown, with what seemed to be millions of speckles of darker brown, red, and black — bedbug bodies and bedbug poop and bedbug and human blood. Nobody was going to want that mattress.

In the bedroom, we found dried bedbug bodies and similar speckles inside every drawer, on the hardwood floors, in every nook and cranny as we cleaned, and oh, did we clean. We scrubbed the floors, the furniture, and especially the walls. Scrubbed until our arms ached. There are almost no stains more stubborn than bedbug scum. We found and wiped away many, many dried bedbug bodies, but not another living one.

To this day, when furniture is moved, or paintings are re-positioned on the wall, bedbug evidence is exposed — but it's always evidence that bedbugs were here, never evidence that bedbugs are here. I've gone through most of the books on our shelves, flipping the pages and peering down the spine — a few dead bedbugs flutter out, but never a live one. I recently took down an old shelf that had been attached to the wall, and in the old days bedbugs would have scattered as the shelf came apart from the wall, but what I found instead were just more dried bedbug fossils.

We won, but still, I always stop cold and drop everything when I notice a blop on the wall — a bug of some other kind, or just a speck of the wrong colored flotsam and jetsam. It happened again yesterday, and a tiny spot on the wall instantly filled my gut with dread.

I approached with caution, and squished the thing on the wall, hoping hoping hoping that the residue on my fingernail and on the wall wouldn't be red. Red residue would mean only one thing — bedbugs. Lifted my finger and ... the bug's blood was black, not red. I sighed so loudly it startled me.

I don't care what yesterday's bug on the wall was. Even a cockroach would be welcome. Fleas or ticks or lice are cordially invited — come on in, make yourselves at home — because nothing, nothing could be worse than bedbugs.

 

itsdougholland.com 

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