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Bedbugs

What follows is 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'd rather avoid all the bedbuggery below, here's the condensed version, in only two paragraphs:

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. 

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And now, here's all the horror. You're welcome.

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It began with a single small brownish-red invader on our couch in the living room. Just a bug, that's all. We gave it no thought, and didn't even kill it. Share the earth, tight?

Then there were a few more, on my wife's jacket in a restaurant, and carried to work in my backpack. It took us a few days to connect the unfamiliar 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 on the couch and inside the couch, and in the bed, in the dresser drawers, in the cat's favorite sleeping areas, and 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. Retaliation is illegal, but that's a vague concept. Knowing our landlord, it seemed likely that if we reported the bedbugs, we'd be vulnerable to eviction, a rent increase, or just being hassled. So we never called the landlord.


We lived with the bedbugs, and it was awful, but the experts say that getting rid of them — without hiring an exterminator — is virtually impossible. 

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.

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And so, 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.

Everywhere bedbugs go, they leave black, pinprick-size bedbug turds. A white mattress or a t-shirt left in the wrong corner becomes grey, with red and brown of their bodies and black of their droppings. If the bedbugs really get settled in, it can be mostly red and brown and black.

But 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. So for the next five years, the bedbugs were our roommates. 

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. 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.

The bites itch like crazy. You can scratch until your skin bleeds, and still the bites itch. 

We bought a product called After-Bite, a pen-shaped device that drips a soothing liquid onto insect bites. It's not expensive and it works well; press some of this onto a bedbug bite (or a mosquito bite) and the itch is gone. You'll need to re-apply 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, and what worked best was a brand cleverly called Bed Bug Killer Spray. It absolutely kills bedbugs on contact, but only on contact.

Spray a bedbug and watch it die, but all the bedbugs you don't see are unaffected. The bedbugs that 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-hairy-legged bodies.

We bought bedbug "interceptors", designed to catch the awful insects as they climb from the floor up the legs of the bed, the couch, the tables and dressers and nightstands. It's their instinct, and it's just about the only thing bedbugs do besides sucking human blood — they climb the legs of beds, chairs, anything, including your legs.

These interceptors work, sort of. They're unsightly as hell, big round tubular saucers under the legs of every table and chair, and they announce "bedbugs" loudly to anyone who steps into the apartment. But they do catch some of the bedbugs. 

Only for a few weeks, though. As they get dusty, they no longer catch bedbugs, and they never catch enough to make a difference, but if you're not certain whether you have bedbugs, the interceptors will clarify that for you.

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When they're not climbing table legs, bedbugs are constantly climbing the walls. At the height of our 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 it" 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, 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 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.

The patrols became routine. Weekly spray sessions were simply a chore to be done, like laundry or taking out the trash.

But eventually we noticed that we weren't being bitten as often as we had been for the first several years. 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. Which meant 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. The living room seemed to be territory we'd won in a land war, so we abandoned our bed and 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, and only 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 were away from 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, smeared with the remains of ten thousand dead bedbugs. We saw no living bedbugs, but still we dragged the mattress outside and heaved it into the dumpster.

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 almost every inch 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 the stains left behind by bedbugs, but we never found another living bedbug. 

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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 during the infestation bedbugs would have scattered from behind the shelf, but what I found instead were only 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.

We won the war, though. Our apartment has been bedbug-free for almost two years now.

5/5/2019  
Republished 4/4/2024  

3 comments:

  1. That's quite a horror story, Doug. I'm surprised the bugs didn't spread to neighboring apartments before you began to finally start killing them off en masse. They certainly had plenty of time to do so!

    - Zeke Krahlin

    ReplyDelete
  2. Okay, I just learned that the active ingredient in After Bite is, guess what: sodium bicarbonate. IOW baking soda.

    - Zeke Krahlin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The happy ending of my bedbug experience runs counter to everything I've researched about bedbugs. Yeah, they'd be expected to get into the next door apartment, but if they did we never heard of it. Also, everyone says eradicating them is impossible without professional help, and that once they're into books you have to burn the books, but we did and didn't, respectively.

      Amazing about the baking soda, but I sure wouldn't bother making a DIY version. There's actually an After Bite (buried under rubble) on the table in front of me. Haven't used it since last summer, but it's great for mosquito bites.

      Delete

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