Five years ago, if anyone had asked me what I knew about bed bugs, I would have shrugged my shoulders and stared at them blankly. Now, unfortunately, that is not the case. I’ve had much more experience with bed bugs than I can stand. I know that others have had, and unfortunately are still having, far worse experiences than mine; but you have to understand that mental illness makes it much harder to deal with the anxiety and downright horror an infestation of these nasties can cause. And there is plenty of reason to believe that if you don’t have a mental illness before you get bed bugs, you may very well acquire one. There are numerous articles in the psychology and psychiatry journals speculating whether latent mental illness can be triggered by the severe stress and distress that bed bugs cause.
In fact, I just read a case study from the National Institutes of Health documenting the suicide of a woman with mental illness for whom a prolonged bed bug infestation was just the last straw.
Any of you who have had to deal with these disgusting creatures will agree: in the “gross!” department, it doesn’t get much grosser. They bite you in the middle of the night, when you are asleep and defenseless. You can’t even feel them biting, because first they inject you with a dose of local anesthetic so you won’t feel their proboscis piercing your skin. Try to starve them by going on extended vacation; they laugh! They can live up to a year without feeding.
I asked my rabbi who was responsible for the creation of bed bugs, anyway. His response?
Oh man, do I agree with him.
My first bed bug experience was four years ago. I was a patient at an Ayurvedic hospital in South India. I was extremely ill with a digestive malady that turned out to be a rare form of Cystic Fibrosis. I had lost 20 lbs because all of the food I ingested came right out the other end (sorry), and I was literally starving. Regular medicine had decided that I was some kind of crank, so I was getting no care from that quarter.
The Ayurvedic hospital was heaven on earth. Located high in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, the hospital itself was situated in the middle of a vast tea plantation. Did you know that tea comes from a Camellia bush, Camelia Sinensis? Well, let me tell you, when hundreds of thousands of Camellia bushes are all in flower, the night smells just like the fragrance the angels smell when they come out to sing in the morning.
But let’s get back to the subject at hand.
One morning I woke up with itchy bumps on my neck. They looked like this:
My First Bed Bug Bites
Note the peculiar proximity to my jugular vein. My first thought was, Damn, they have accurate mosquitos here. Then I thought, Hmmm, it said in the brochure that they don’t have mosquitos here. That’s why you don’t have to worry about malaria like you do everywhere else in India.
The following morning, my neck looked as if someone had taken a pastry wheel (the kind with sharp spokes, for poking holes in pie crusts) and run it up and down my neck a few times–and horrors! my pillow was covered in splats of blood, to match the holes in my neck!!! OMG.
I ran down to the dining room to see if anybody there could tell me what this was. A woman from New York gave me a knowing look and pulled some pictures up on the communal computer: yup, no question. Those were bed bug bites.
I roared into my doctor’s office, panting, and blubbered out my story, spewing tears and snot. He patted me on the hand and told me it was OK. It was NOT OK. I dragged him up the hill to my cottage and showed him the hideous pillow. He yelled for the servants to come and give me a new mattress. I barked orders to also clean the bed frame very well, very well. The staff did not speak English, so I implored Doctor-ji to please, please explain to them. I think he did, for they grudgingly took their pails full of water and crude eucalyptus oil (I was later to discover why they used eucalyptus oil) and swabbed down the bed frame.
I always travel with my own goose down pillows, because I have two fused vertebrae in my neck, and I have to have the right pillow in order to not be in agony. So I stuffed my poor pillows into the washing machine (“for the convenience of the guests”) and set it on 90 degrees Celsius, which is just short of boiling. I won’t bore you with the details of trying to get the pillows dry again, because “for the convenience of the guests” the hospital did not have a dryer, and it was monsoon season, freezing cold and raining most of the time. Previously, I had thought it entertaining to watch the staff hanging the sheets out on the topiaries to dry, only to snatch them back inside the next moment because it had begun to rain again. Needless to say, I no longer found that entertaining, now that I was doing it myself.
I fought the bed bug battle for weeks. Changing the mattress changed nothing. I moved to a new cottage. They were there too. Eventually I learned that the locally made (and very crude) essential oil of eucalyptus repelled the little bastards, and by soaking the bed and covers every night before retiring, I could get a night’s sleep without worrying about waking up bitten bloody. Reeking, perhaps, but intact.
Fast forward to August, 2013. I have just arrived to Jerusalem after a two-month absence. In June I had rented a tiny apartment, built entirely of Jerusalem limestone quarries, quaint but suitable for my needs. I come and go often, and really just need a place to land when I’m there.
The place came unfurnished except for a large wardrobe, so I brought a large and sturdy camping cot with me from America, to stand in for a bed. It fit nicely into a golf bag that I used to have for the purpose of flying with odd size objects.
I stayed a few days with a good friend of mine who lives half a block from my new apartment, very convenient, and got everything set up before I moved into my digs. I’ve stayed with him countless times in the past. He’s a dear friend whose chief failing is that he is incapable of saying “no.”
And so it was that his good friend, we’ll call him Bob, arrived from a large East Coast city with FOUR enormous duffel bags packed with STUFF. OK, I get it that he was moving back to Israel permanently, but he was also planning to stay with my friend who can’t say no, and there was simply no room for his stuff and mine. So I pulled my belongings out from under the pile of his bags, and packed myself off with my few possessions to my little apartment down the street.
Two days later, my friend calls me and says, quite sanguinely, “Guess what? A big fat bed bug crawled out from under my pillow this morning, full of my blood. I squashed the sucker.”
I broke out in a cold sweat. I mean literally, I was suddenly drenched in sweat. My heart was racing. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears. I was having a Bed Bug PTSD flashback! No, don’t laugh, I mean it! I couldn’t swallow. I felt like I was going to faint, or have a seizure, or a heart attack, or die.
“Fuck, Ron,” I managed to squeeze out. ”We didn’t used to have bed bugs at your place.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m thinking Bob. He lived in this fleabag room full of roaches and God knows what else.”
“Well, what are you going to do?”
“Uh, what was the name of that exterminator you had over to get rid of the fleas?” My apartment had been full of fleas when I moved in, so I got Sammy the Exterminator and he took care of it. I gave Sammy’s details to Ron and closed my phone, still shaking.
Shit, all my stuff had been lying at the bottom of the luggage pile, literally, with Bob’s fleabag flophouse stuff on top of it. Well, all I could do was wait and hope.
I didn’t have to wait long. A couple of days later I woke up with bites. Not only that, but my little dog Noga was furiously scratching. God, I was hoping it was just the fleas again.
But it wasn’t the fleas. The next day I found a big old bed bug dead between the camping mattress and the cot. I picked it up in a tissue and put it in the freezer for evidence.
I didn’t call Sammy. I didn’t like how he had handled the extermination job at Ron’s. I’m not going to go into the technicalities of bed bug extermination, but it’s a big, long, involved, labor intensive process, and Sammy hadn’t done any of that. So I called a big extermination company that’s supposed to be the only outfit in Israel that really knows their bed bug business.
The guy showed up in a company uniform, very official. He took one look at my stone cave of an apartment, and said, “You can’t have bed bugs here.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Because you can’t. I’m a professional, and I say you can’t have bed bugs here.”
I showed him my bites. I went to the freezer and got my frozen bed bug specimen out, but when I opened the tissue it fell apart.
“That is not a bed bug,” he stated triumphantly.
“Look at all the cracks between the stones! Look at that old wardrobe! Look, I found that bed bug (he snorted a snort of contempt) in my bed!”
He tore the covers off my cot and announced, once again, that I could not possibly have bed bugs there because he was a bed bug expert. Then he took his little flash light and looked into the sleeve where the tube of the cot goes through the fabric.
“You have bed bugs,” he announced officiously.
“Where? Where? Show me!”
He pointed his flash light into the sleeve. I peered. There was a whole colony of bugs in there, big ones, little ones, cast-off molted skins….I felt both triumphant and sickened at once.
We had a quick huddle about what to do, and concluded that he would take the cot away and “recycle it,” whatever that means, because if we put it in the dumpster it’s certain that someone would take it home with them, even if we marked it “bed bugs,” because that’s how it is there. So he folded the thing up, in spite of my fears that he would dump bugs and eggs and everything into the cracks between the stones of my floor, and took it outside, announcing that it would be 200 shekels for the house call. I shelled out 200 shek. He stuffed it in his pocket and stumped away with my former bed.
To be continued…..