Bed Buggin' Out

My six-legged summer roommate nightmare

I’ve always had trouble sleeping through the night.

One night in early August I woke with a start at 1 a.m.

That’s when I saw it.

Illuminated by my bedside lamp that I forgot to turn off, a little reddish-brown oval-shaped insect scurried across my pillow.

My breath caught in my throat. I knew exactly what it could be – what it probably was – but tried to reassure myself that it was something, anything else.

I have an anxiety disorder and a generally dramatic disposition, so it’s not uncommon for me to jump to worst case scenarios. I told myself to stay calm. It could’ve been anything: an ant, a beetle, a potato bug. I had recently visited my aunt who has a dog and four cats; perhaps a stray flea had stowed along on my luggage, I reasoned.

I took a deep breath and pulled out my phone with shaking hands.

I pulled up Google and quickly typed “reddish-brown oval-shaped bug,” resisting the urge to throw my phone across the room before the results came up for fear of what they would reveal.

The result was exactly what I dreaded: bed bugs.

I desperately scrolled through the results, searching for some other, less horrific explanation for the critter crawling on my covers. Much to my relief, I stumbled on an article listing other bugs that are often mistaken for bed bugs. Surely, it must’ve been some random, benign insect. It was summer, the building was old; having little bugs around here and there is to be expected.

It was the middle of the night and I had work in the morning. Convincing myself that I had bed bugs is exactly the kind of scenario my anxiety-ridden brain would concoct. I told myself I was jumping to a ridiculous conclusion and willed myself to go back to sleep.

But the image of the reddish-brown oval-shaped insect labeled “bed bug” on that Google Image search was burned into the back of my brain. I didn’t want to believe it. But I know what I saw.

The next day I thought I had some type of rash or maybe mosquito bites. Little pink bumps appeared along my chest. I thought maybe they were just pimples. Anything to ignore the horrifying possibility of what those little bumps really meant.

You don’t have bedbugs; you don’t have bedbugs I repeated to myself on my walk home, like a mantra.

Deep breath. Walk into my bedroom door. You don’t have bedbugs.

Even if I didn’t have bedbugs, my temporary summer accommodation wasn’t exactly the Ritz Carlton. I had a tiny room in a shared house off of South Campus that had to have been built half a century ago. And then there was that odor: musty and sickly sweet, like rotten strawberries. It was a distinctive odor that I will never forget.

I was relaxing on my bed that evening in that dingy little room, when I felt something on my leg. My heart stopped.

I looked down and there it was. And another. And another. Coming to feast.

I pulled up the Google Image search again. There was no mistaking it this time: they were bed bugs. And the bumps on my chest were bedbug bites.

I leapt from my bed screaming and called my mother from the other side of the room, sobbing and trembling.

“This is a nightmare, my worst nightmare,” I sobbed again and again. Ever since a friend of mine had a bed bug infestation three years ago, I obsessively researched the creepy crawlers and momentarily convinced myself I had them. That time it really was just a figment of my imagination. But this time around, my nightmare had come into fruition right before my eyes. And just as I thought that perhaps this was all just some kind of delusional anxiety-induced hallucination, another little friend started crawling up my leg.

I shrieked. My mother got me a hotel to stay in for the night.

I spent my evening in the hotel researching bedbugs even more fervently than I had three years previously. I learned that the distinctive, sickly odor that I will never forget is in fact a telltale sign of bedbugs; the scent is a pheromone secreted by the nightmarish nymphs.

Thankfully, the apartment was just a temporary summer sublet, so I was able to get out of the sublease and move out the next day. I don’t have a car so I had to stow whatever clothes I could fit into a garbage bag (not a cloth bag or suitcase—bedbugs love to hitch on those) to the laundromat, and I washed and dried them on extra high heat. I had to throw out everything else and left for my family home directly from the laundromat; I couldn’t risk going back to the apartment and having more bugs stow along with me.

When I arrived at my aunt’s house, it took me two full days to garner up the courage to open up my garbage bag, for fear the bugs that managed to survive the dryer.

Luckily, no bugs were found—well, no live ones that is. Little parts of bed bug bodies were scattered about the bag and in my clothes.

It took me almost a week to be able to sleep through the night. It took me nearly three weeks to stop obsessively checking the bedding, underneath the mattress, under the couch pillows and in the carpet.

It’s been over a month now and I’ve finally stopped jumping whenever I see a crumb, speck of dirt or ant on my bed or my floor. I’m in a new apartment now and there is no sign of the insects that traumatized me in August.

But there are some rituals that I don’t think will stop any time soon: checking train and bus seats and searching hotel beds for signs of the pests. Travel is the primary way people get bedbugs and I want to do everything I can to keep from reliving my terror.

There are some realities that will continue to haunt me: like the fact that Buffalo is the eighteenth most bed bug infested city in the country. And UB has had at least four cases.

Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.