Late in the summer of 2004, I was lying on my bare bed in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment wondering what went wrong. I had stripped off the sheets, pulled the frame away from the wall and surrounded it with double-sided tape, a dubious trick I found on the internet to keep insects from creeping up bed leg or errant sheet corner.
But each time I felt the slightest sensation on my arms or legs, whether real or imagined, I jolted up and flipped on the light. My nocturnal efforts were useless. The next morning I had new bites — large red welts up my arms and one on my finger that made it swell to twice its normal size. After weeks I finally confirmed what I figured was sharing my room: Bed bugs.
That evening, over dinner out with a friend, I tried to hide both my bites and my rattled psyche. I was ashamed of both. The bites suggested I was messy or dirty, and I was afraid that my mental state, frayed by nighttime visits by an unseen enemy that had led me to vacuum along every crack in my parquet floor, might be seen as a weakness of character.
Despite the anguish and sleepless nights, my case was better than most: I experienced an intense allergic reaction to the insects’ bites. Sure, this meant I had to rush to the emergency room and take antibiotics and steroids to staunch an infection and swelling. But my reaction — mainly to the proteins in the suckers’ saliva — was like a biological alarm, allowing me to seek and destroy the invaders before they reached unmanageable levels.
Some people don’t react at all to the stealthy bugs, which hide in cracks and crevices when they aren’t feeding. A person with no bites might not notice the bugs until there are so many that they boldly wander across a wall or a mattress in broad daylight.
Even with my early detection of the intruders, it was grueling work to debug my apartment: washing all my clothes and bedding at high temperatures, stashing them in enormous sealed trash bags to avoid recontamination and cleaning endlessly while an exterminator doused my bedroom with insecticide. The worst part, however, was the psychological stress of sharing my bed — my safe place, my sanctuary — with the vampiric beasts.
Eventually, I cleansed my apartment of the critters. I thought I’d never see them again. But in cities we often run into things we want to avoid. I got bedbugs in Brooklyn in the summer of 2009: first in my now-husband’s apartment, and mine a month later. (We still lovingly argue whether he gave them to me or they hitched a ride on my new roommate’s Craigslist futon.) The laundry, bagging and cleaning rituals came back. So did the anxiety and insomnia.
This time, the experience launched an obsession — I began to earnestly research and write about the bugs. This eventually became a book, "Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World," published in April 2015 by University Of Chicago Press.
Through the work, I learned that my psychological reaction to the insects isn’t unusual. In 2012, researchers in Montreal published a preliminary study of 91 tenants in an apartment complex — 39 with bed bug infestations and the rest without. The researchers gave both groups standard tests that measured anxiety, depression and sleep quality. Those living in the infested units were much more likely to have insomnia and general anxiety, compared to their bug-free neighbors. This held true even if they had no previous history of such disorders.
Other studies have found similar connections between bed bugs, anxiety and sleep. In 2012, a team from Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center surveyed 135 blogs and online forums where bed bug victims aired their grief. The researchers sought patterns of psychological distress, particularly symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a standard PTSD test, they found that while only one entry scored high enough to indicate the disorder, others matched key symptoms including “nightmares, flashbacks of the infestation, hypervigilance (to keep the bugs away), insomnia, anxiety, avoidance behaviors, and personal dysfunction.”
Why do the bugs haunt us? According to New York psychologist Evan Rieder, who published a series of case studies on the effects of bed bugs on psychiatric patients in 2012, it's because the bugs attack when we're most vulnerable. The patients in his study, he told me, “couldn’t feel safe in the space which is usually reserved for sacred activities of human daily experience, like sleep and sex."
The good news is that it can get better. Of course, the experience varies for everyone but what worked for me was desensitization. Four years of constant exposure through reading, interviewing and writing — plus literal exposures that stretch back a decade — left me calmer in the face of bed bugs. I don’t want them again, but I can think about them without triggering psychosomatic itching.
Two weeks after I submitted the first draft of my book in 2014, in a hotel room in Chicago, I had a chance to test my mettle against the pests. Just one night in, I woke up early in my hotel room to find familiar swollen welts on my neck and arms. Out of all of the beds in all of the hotel rooms in that big city, mine had bed bugs hiding in its skirt. I switched rooms, and the hotel did my laundry gratis.
While my allergic reaction to the bed bug bites was nearly as bad as it had been a decade ago, the insomnia and anxiety was not. The next night, and most nights after, I slept just fine.