Two years ago, I decided to take the next step toward that intangible feeling of being a real adult by saying goodbye to my roommate and getting my own place. I felt lucky when found a relatively affordable studio apartment in Washington, D.C. It was a bit removed from the nightlife, but still walking distance to some bars and Target. What more does anyone need?
For a few months, I basked in the pants-less glory of living alone, even as I began to notice issues with the building. Paper thin walls. Upstairs neighbors who were either poltergeists or late-night furniture builders.
And every few days, men would corner me in the elevator to ask if I lived in the building. Did I live alone? What apartment? The apartment manager brushed it off, saying that they see a pretty girl and just want to be friendly.
And yet I was determined to love the building. I had not made a mistake.
Sometime in November, I became convinced that I had a mosquito problem. I've always been one of those people who mosquitoes just love, what with my delicious Bella Swan blood. It had been a warm fall, but when the weather got cold, I couldn't figure out how I kept getting mosquito bites—especially since I didn’t actually see any mosquitoes.
Google searches kept turning up the same suggestion: bed bugs. But I didn't want to admit that could be the problem. I was clean. I changed my sheets regularly. The bites weren't occurring in rows of three. Surely, it was just invisible mosquitoes. Invisible, soundless mosquitoes.
I bought a mosquito net.
The bites stopped when I went away for Christmas. However, my first night back, I woke up covered in five or six swollen welts. Either my mosquito net had failed, or the Internet was right.
So I contacted the apartment manager, expressing my concern that I had bed bugs. He insisted that no one else was experiencing problems, only me, but he'd send an exterminator to spray and do some checks if I really wanted. The exterminator came, lightly misted the walls and baseboards, but reported that there were no signs of bed bugs.
After a few weeks, the bites started again. The cycle repeated. The apartment manager maintained that everything was fine and maybe I just had a rash. I should try changing my laundry detergent. When the bites came back again, he vaguely suggested that sometimes people can get stressed out and that stress causes physical problems.
Maybe he was right. I hadn’t found any bugs, or the “fecal blood spots” the Internet kept telling me I’d find. Then one morning, I saw something that looked like a dead bed bug in the corner of my bathtub. My stomach dropped, and I realized how strongly I’d been clinging to hope that my invisible mosquito theory would still pan out.
Since I wanted to be sure, I put the bug in a bag and left it for the apartment manager. He was unimpressed, opting not to pass the bug onto the exterminator.
In March, I had a trip planned with friends to San Francisco—booked and paid for while I was still in bed bug denial. To avoid spreading my insect plague, I got a suitcase and kept it in my car. I bought brand new clothes, putting them directly in the suitcase, never bringing them into my apartment. I wiped down everything else I planned to take. After my bite-free week in San Francisco, I dreaded returning home.
Bed bugs typically feed in the wee hours of the morning—and since I had jet lag when I got back, I woke up early enough to find a bed bug actually on me. Sticking it with a piece of tape, I put the tiny Lestat in a bag and waited till morning. When the apartment manager got to his office, the bed bug and I were waiting. "Here," I gave him the bag. "It’s a bed bug. You can have the exterminator check it, if you want. Don't let it out."
He couldn't ignore it anymore. Though he tried. He maintained that the other apartments were all fine—coming just short of suggesting that I was the problem—but he’d ask the exterminator to start spraying my apartment every other Friday.
A few weeks later, I brought him another bug. I sent him an email for every new cluster of bites. I made myself a frequent visitor in his office, scratching and scowling from across his desk.
I wanted to be as much of an irritation to him as the bed bugs were to me. Quite frankly, I felt like I was losing my mind. I had stopped sleeping for more than two hours at a time. I went through packs of Benadryl to help me stop itching and get drowsy enough to even fall asleep.
If I covered my arms and legs, the bugs bit my face. So I'd sleep in clay face masks with my arms bare and above the covers as a sacrifice. Then I'd spend the day exhausted and tearing at the skin under my sweaters.
Finally, the apartment manager agreed to do full inspections of the apartments around mine. Every single one had signs of bed bugs. And then he found it—bed bug ground zero. The unit above mine to the left had crowded the apartment with an illegal number of people.
Apparently, one of them had brought in an infested mattress. The assistant manager had a look of wide-eyed horror as he told me that it had gotten bad. Bed bugs everywhere. Crawling on the furniture and clustered on the walls. They even tore up a corner of carpet and found bed bugs living underneath.
Vindication was the best anti-itch balm.
The bed bugs had probably reached me by crawling through the walls, where they could survive without food for months. The apartment manager tried to convince me that they would handle it. But I told him in no uncertain terms that if the bites continued, they were letting me out of my lease. He didn't argue.
When I found a baby bed bug crawling up my wall late one Wednesday night, I knew I was out. I stuck the critter to a piece of tape and put it in a Ziploc. Bed bug nymphs are impossibly tiny and clear; it's a miracle I saw it. (Or perhaps evidence of how obsessive I had gotten about checking.)
The next morning, I waited outside the apartment manager's office. We sat down at his desk, and I silently handed him the sandwich bag. He put his head in his hands, confessing that the people living in bed bug ground zero were resisting the exterminator's attempts to treat. (Did they feel like they had too much blood? Or just love itching?) The eviction would be a long, slow process.
Within two weeks, I moved out. No fees or penalties. They gave me the full security deposit back. I had the exterminator treat my apartment and my belongings one last time before I left. Still, on moving day I cleaned everything, covering the possessions I decided to keep with diatomaceous earth. I used compressed air to check in every crevice. (If a credit card can slide in somewhere, a bed bug can fit too. They’re very flat.)
My clothes had either been thrown out or run through a dryer on high heat and immediately bagged. I trashed curtains, sheets, towels, and blankets. And I threw my mosquito net in the garbage.
It's been over a year now, and I still have moments of anxiety. If I wake up with a small bump, I watch it all day to see if it swells into a bite. Even if I see a mosquito land on me and a bite appears in that exact spot, I feel compelled to thoroughly check in and around my bed. Just in case. And then I wear long pants during the day—and no pants at night—as an experiment.
If you think you might have bed bugs, I recommend visiting the forums at Bedbugger.com. I know consulting an "expert" over the Internet seems shifty, but they helped calm my panic when I found an aphid on my glasses and worried it was a bed bug nymph.
While the remnants bed bug anxiety may never quite go away, I did learn to stand up for myself -- as well as the importance of being a squeaky wheel. Still, I wish that lesson hadn't been so itchy.