Bed Bugs & Beyond

An outbreak of paranoia (and lint) sweeps the city

About a week ago, I met with a 58-year-old recovering bedbug sufferer from Long Island. Since April, a mere seven months ago, when the first bite appeared on her upper-left breast, her life has turned upside down. Or more accurately, she has turned her own life upside down in search of her elusive tormentor. Her new obsession—not ever getting bedbugs again—consumes all her time. Everything else—small matters like work, friends, and family—has been set aside. She spoke on the agreement that her name would be withheld. Let's call her Diane, because remember, the bedbugs are taking notes.

She's Caucasian and has light-brown hair and designer glasses. She walked into the Dunkin' Donuts, the one just off the Hicksville LIRR stop, to meet me. She wouldn't allow me to enter her home; any new person poses a threat and could lead to a new infestation. She yammered on her mobile phone as she got a Dunkin' employee to swab the table and chair I had picked with a wet rag.

"You can never be too careful," she said as the young man finished removing all traces of bedbugs from my seat.

 Cimex lectularius, not to be confused with bunnyex dustus.
illustration: Bill Mayer
Cimex lectularius, not to be confused with bunnyex dustus.


See also:
When the Bedbugs Bite
Those little red bumps are the least of it
Photo gallery by Mara Altman

She sat down and continued talking into the phone.

"At least when you have cancer you're dealing with doctors who are educated," she said, "and not predatory, lowlife, uneducated exterminators."

She was speaking to another bedbug sufferer—Bugz in the Hood is his member name on the blog, but we'll get to him later. He's someone in the middle of an infestation, whereas Diane has gone five months—closely monitoring each square inch of her epidermis—without detecting a bite. She was coaching him about the extermination process. Bedbug blog members do that for one another; it's part of the experience.

After hanging up, she digs in her bag and pulls out a little brown vial. She pops a pill in her mouth and swallows. "See what they've done to me?" she says. "I never had to take anxiety medication before."

Diane lived for 28 years in Melville, Long Island, until August 2005, when the market looked good and her husband decided to sell their home for $1.7 million. They put themselves up in a rental until they could find a new property. Diane had an overnight guest, and that's how she thinks the bedbugs invaded. Within days she quit her job selling ads for a newspaper and gave up her hobby of dabbling in real estate, to wage outright war on the intruders. She sent her husband and son to a hotel for a couple weeks while she stayed at the house to battle the bugs alone. She slept on the dining-room table and blasted the house with chemical after chemical. She wrapped all her belongings in plastic and put them in a storage pod, hoping that if she left them there long enough the bugs would eventually die out. But she felt she had to toss some stuff out. Out went an antique secretary, tables, chairs, large area rugs (one was a $3,000 Persian) and $3,500 worth of mattresses—a Select Comfort and two Shifmans.

She exterminated the rental home four times—another $4,000 gone—and moved. She'd only seen two actual bedbugs but had suffered multiple bites. Her husband was supportive, but her son left for college in California worried that perhaps his mother had lost her mind. But is there anything wrong with devoting every action of one's life to knocking bedbugs into oblivion?

At this moment in the story, Diane looks down at her shoes—nondescript blue slip-ons from DSW. Her eyes begin to fill with tears.

"I used to have beautiful shoes," she snivels.

Now Diane doesn't invest in nice things for fear she'll have to throw everything away again. She's wearing brown cords, a gray sweatshirt, and socks that go up to her knees—extra coverage to make sure there is less surface area for bugs to crawl on her skin. She bought air mattresses for $90, in case the pests return. Her image has changed too; when she first got the bugs she couldn't eat, and now, she says, she eats too much and has gained weight. For five months she picked up smoking for the first time. "It was disgusting!" she says. Bedbugs have also begun to stress her marriage. She's had trouble sleeping, perhaps due to the 100-watt bulbs that remain lit all night to protect her from the nocturnal nuisances. Her husband has taken to sleeping in another room with the light off. She doesn't attend or have dinner parties anymore, and a night out on the town is "inconceivable," she says. Diane will only fraternize with contributors to the blog. No one else can begin to comprehend her troubles. She hasn't told her friends about the infestation for fear of the stigma. Because of her absence, her friends think she's either getting a divorce or having a nervous breakdown—she agrees that the latter might be close. "I don't care if people think I'm crazy," she says. "I just want to kill them." She is referring, of course, to the bedbugs, not her friends.

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