Monday, January 31, 2011

Victory: The Bed Bug Saga

I have declared complete and total victory.  Victory against anxiety, victory against fear, victory against sleepless nights, victory against insidious little blood-sucking parasites.... yes I am talking about bed bugs.

I wanted to write up this post for two reasons.  Firstly, this encompassed a large portion of my life last semester, and is one of the biggest factors in my current lack of knitting and thus lack of pretty finished knitwear pictures on the blog.  Secondly, in all of my extensive bed bug-related research, I found very few success stories of people who beat the little varmints on their own without calling in an exterminator.  I want to let anyone who is currently struggling in a battle against bed bugs to know that there is hope, you can beat them, and I will tell you how I did it.

This story begins in September 2010.  My knowledge of bed bugs was limited to the old saying, "Sleep tight.  Don't let the bed bugs bite."  I'm one of a large portion of the population who doesn't react to beg bug bites, so I was quite oblivious to the infestation for quite some time.  I was single-handedly providing sustenance for a whole colony of them, and didn't have a single mark on my body.  This I think, is one of the first signs of the grace of God on my life throughout this situation.  As bad as it was, I thanked God every day that I didn't have to bear the outward itchy disfiguring marks of the creatures' nighttime feedings.

Getting back to the story, I had been sleeping less well than usual, and was troubled by dreams of insects crawling over me.  There were also strange little rust-coloured spots on my sheets some mornings, and I couldn't figure out what it would be from.  Looking back now, the signs are obvious, but at the time I was too busy with school and everything else to devote much thought to it.  However, shortly after, on a leisurely Saturday morning I was sleeping in, and had just woken up and was checking my email in bed.  I spotted some movement on top of my duvet, and felt a tinge of annoyance that a fruit fly would trouble my morning.  But as I inspected closer, looking at this tiny red creature, I realized that this was no fruit fly at all.  I squished it out of instinct and it exploded into a bright red smear.  Blood.  This was worrisome.  Not seconds later, I spotted a full-size dark brown adult bug scurrying across the duvet.  Upon beholding the horrifying cockroach-like visage of my enemy, I smashed it quickly and bolted out of my bed in sheer terror.

One hot shower and an hour's worth of internet research later, I was feeling both more prepared to deal with this situation, and more horrified about the nightmare ahead of me.  If you have had bed bugs or are currently dealing with them you know exactly what I'm talking about.  If you have been spared this modern-day plague, let me enlighten you with a few facts about bed bugs.  I won't cite this list, you can google the information yourself if you feel so inclined.
  • They feed exclusively on blood, and need regular blood meals to reach adulthood and reproduce
  • They come out typically around 2-4 am when their food source is in deepest sleep, and need 2-5 minutes for a complete feeding
  • A single female bug, transported on clothing or a suitcase or backpack, can start an infestation
  • They like to nest as close to their food source as possible, hence they usually take up residence in bed frames, preferring tight enclosed spaces
  • They are VERY hard to kill, and most pesticides have no effect on them similar to cockroaches
  • They can fit in cracks the width of a credit card
  • They can live up to a year without feeding
  • Newly-hatched bugs are about the size of the head of a pin, while adult bugs can grow to be 1/4 inch long, and like an accordion they elongate after a feeding 
  • They are drawn to heat and carbon dioxide to find their food
  • Most professional exterminators charge a fortune to treat a room for bed bugs
  • The only thing that reliably kills all stages of bed bugs is heat
This was full-on war.  With bed bugs, there are no half-measures.  It's all or nothing.

Armed with my new knowledge I set out to buy some weapons of warfare.  First up, a bed bug-proof mattress cover.  Any bugs trapped inside would die of starvation, and outside I'd be able to more easily spot and kill the bugs.  This was a necessity.  It was also $80.  My heart sank when I saw the price tag because for a student, $80 is a lot of money.  Nevertheless, it was necessary.  When I brought it to the checkout, and as the lady scanned it she remarked, "Wow, you're very lucky!  These things never go on sale."  "Oh?" I said, thinking that I hadn't seen any kind of a sale sign by the rack. "Oh yes," she continued. "In the four years I've been working here, I've never seen them go on sale even once."  It turns out that I got it for 50% off.  Here yet again is the grace of God in the midst of my troubles.  

Back home, now armed with a mattress cover, vacuum cleaner, and portable steam cleaner, I set to work decontaminating everything.  I began by clearing a perimeter around my bed.  Anything that was washable went straight into the washing machine followed by the dryer.  My first round didn't reveal any bugs lurking in the area around my bed.  Good.  That meant the infestation was contained.  Bed bugs are social creatures, you see, as well as being lazy.  They only spread out once there isn't any more room for them in their current nesting places.  And since my bed frame was wooden, with drawers built into the bottom, it offered plenty of prime real estate for my unwelcome guests.  

Still, with bed bugs you can't be too careful.  If only a single bug is left alive, they can begin the infestation anew.  I needed to be extremely thorough.  

I spent the next 12 hours straight taking apart my bed and blasting steam into every nook and cranny.  The steam kills the bugs in a second or two, and causes them to lose their grip on vertical surfaces and drop to the ground.  So every blast of steam was followed by the dropping of tiny carcasses to the floor which I could then vacuum up.  I learned quickly that if the force of the steam was too high, it would scatter the bugs before killing them, and they would run and hide somewhere else.  When using a portable steamer, it's crucial to wrap a cloth or rag around the nozzle to absorb some of the impact of the steam.  I had to steam every single surface, because bed bugs can leave their eggs anywhere, and the eggs are too small to see.  It was 12 hours of slaughter, and the entire time I was fighting the horror and revulsion of what this infestation in my bed represented.  I didn't eat all day because being around them made me feel nauseous.

I think one of the reasons bed bugs cause so much trauma to the people who unwittingly contract them is that they prey on you in the very place where you should feel the  most safe, at the time when you are the most vulnerable.  Also, when dealing with an infestation, it is imperative that you do not start sleeping somewhere else.  This will just cause the bugs to migrate elsewhere, looking for food.  Then who knows where they'll end up, and if you'll be able to find and kill them.  No, you must sacrifice yourself each night as live bait to lure out any remaining bugs and keep them centralized around a single area.  If you want to kill them, you must continue to feed them.  As you might imagine, this does not lend itself well to peaceful nights.  The quality and amount of my sleep dropped dramatically.  The fight against bed bugs lasts for weeks, even months.  

I implemented strict containment measures.  Everything inside my room was treated as possibly contaminated.  Any clean clothes which emerged from the dryer I put into a suitcase which I kept in the living room.  Anything which came out of my room had to go through the dryer or steamer before I would take it out of the house.  I stopped using blankets and sheets, and slept with only my sleeping bag on top of my mattress, covered in its white mattress cover.  Any bugs which wanted to get at me would have to walk up to my head where the sleeping bag opening was.  Every night before going to bed I put my sleeping bag, pillow, and pyjamas in the dryer for 10 minutes to kill any bugs which may have taken up residence in those items.  

Every week I spent hours dismantling and steaming my bedframe.  And in the middle of this full-on war, I had to move.  I had been planning to move for a while, but the way that it happened is that I couldn't move directly to my new house.  I would be homeless and needed a place to stay temporarily for 2 weeks.  Ordinarily, this would be a difficult task, but doable.  In the middle of a bed bug war, this was a task of monumental proportions.  I had to send out my belongings to be stored at other people's houses, and my general fear and anxiety tripled, as I had nightmare scenarios play out in my mind about accidentally spreading the infestation to others.  Every single item had to be meticulously steamed before it was packed, and then put into either a plastic tote or a garbage bag inside a box.  Those items closest to 'ground zero' aka my bed, were given two, sometimes 3 steamings.  Things in the living room and kitchen were designated safe since they had all been in cupboards and shelves.  

I ended up having to take 3 days off of work to do all this.  I lived in a state of constant fear.  The toll that this situation was taking on my sanity was beginning to show.  I don't have a lot of stuff, but once you have to steam everything you own, you wish you owned less.  The most heartbreaking part was my yarn, all my gorgeous wool and silk and alpaca, which had been closest to ground zero, and was now covered in the dust of shed bed bug skins and surrounded by their filthy excrement.  I couldn't even bear to look at it, so I stuffed it in a double-bagged garbage bag and inside a plastic tote.  Even though now there are no live bugs left, it'll all need a good soak in some Eucalan before I'll be persuaded to cast it onto my needles again.  

I want to take some time to mention my Champions here, my church family who took the time to help me move and pack, and kept me sane in the worst part of this ordeal.  I generally have a hard time asking for help.  I hate being confronted with things that I cannot do on my own.  Even in times when I do ask for help, I have a backup plan of how I can do it myself.  There was no backup plan here.  If these dear friends had not come to my rescue, I would have been completely screwed.  Every person who came, and every minute they spent assisting me was absolutely necessary.  

My biggest thanks goes to an amazing woman with a little purple truck.  You see, once you have bed bugs anywhere in your house, it's like you're a leper.  Everything you own, you must cry out 'Unclean! Unclean!' as a precaution.  Even though you assure people you have done a thorough decontamination, and that certain items were far far away from the site of infestation, no one will touch anything.  Thus, my attempts to find new homes for my living room furniture failed, and I had to take everything to the dump.  I don't even have a car, much less a truck.  However, in the moment where I was about to despair, or else pay over $200 for one of those professional junk removal services, my friend Jeannie came to my rescue.  Providentially, she was available and had the time to help transport my furniture.  Never have I been so desperate, and never has the help of a friend been so sweet.  

However, even after having everything packed, stored, and having moved to my temporary residence at my brother and SIL's apartment, I couldn't shake the fear.  Every piece of lint looked like a bed bug.  The terror that the infestation had followed me still gripped my heart.  I still had nightmares about bed bugs.  I kept wondering whether I had done enough, whether they were really dead.  After moving, no longer sustained by the adrenaline of an impending deadline, I had a little meltdown and spent an entire day crying.  I went to work, but couldn't even read my computer screen through the tears in my eyes.  I've never cried so much in my life.  I'm not a girl who is easily prone to tears, so it takes a LOT to bring me to that point.  It was the point of being so completely overwhelmed that I'd used up all of my mental and emotional resources and just couldn't deal with anything else.  I felt this war had gone in favour of the bed bugs, because I felt defeated and helpless.  But once again thank God for good friends, because on this awful day of meltdown, my friend Mina came and took me out for dinner and made me a silly little card to cheer me up.  

During this time of displacement and transition, I finally started to get some good sleep, and was able to look at the situation more objectively.  I'd had my doubting moments where I looked at God and said, "Why did this happen to me?  Did I do something wrong to have this plague visited upon me?  Why did you create something that sucks (literally and figuratively) so much?"  Now, I know a lot of theology and can easily dismiss these kind of questions on the basis of sin's curse applied to the natural world, spiritual warfare, etc etc.  But in my state of anxiety, frustration, and vulnerability, walking around in a daze of misery, I couldn't even refute my own questions with the truths that I know.  I didn't want to bring my friends down by letting on just how badly this situation was affecting me.  After all, it was my problem.  I had to deal with it myself.  Did I mention I have problems with asking for help?  At any rate, my victory was not swift and decisive.  It was a process of every day choosing to defy fear and declare God's goodness even if I didn't see it or couldn't believe it in my heart.  And every day, fear's foothold on my life loosened.  I stopped seeing bed bugs every time I closed my eyes.  I stopped my obsessive bed bug research.  Stopped putting everything I own into the dryer all the time.  Started to truly believe that my God is bigger than bed bugs, and that He would protect my home and the homes of my friends where all my stuff was stored.  I had done all that I could, and it was time for me to trust and have hope that God would take care of the rest.  

It's been 4 months since I've seen a live bug.  When I moved into my new house, I put everything through the dryer again just to be safe.  I saw one dead bug in the process.  Since then, neither I nor anyone I know has been troubled by bed bugs.  The stats do say they can live for up to a year without a meal, but that depends very much on the temperature.  That stat is for refrigerator-like conditions.  The warmer it is, the faster they dehydrate, and the blood inside them hardens and they die.  So, I have no qualms at this point in declaring my COMPLETE and TOTAL victory over them, and everything they brought into my life as a result of the infestation.  This victory goes to me, and to my God who truly is bigger than bed bugs, and can redeem even the worst of situations.  If 2010 was a year of trials, I am declaring that 2011 is a year of victory.  This being only the first.  So listen up, everything that comes against me: I cannot be conquered.  I cannot be defeated.  I might be knocked down for a short time, but you better believe that I'm on the winning side, and there's nothing that can come between me and my destiny, cause God's on my side.  


Sonja said...

you are awesome sarah and i love you! yes yes yes yes yes yes to being more alive every day!!!! :) xoxo

shirma said...

AMEN!!!!! Sarah, you are a rockstar conqueror! and your writing is beautiful! can't wait to see u walk out your God given destiny!

Dan said...

Love it :) Reminds me of Kirk and the Tribbles, but he didn't have Jesus. You're awesome!

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