This is the story of how I found out that I had bedbugs.

First things first: I am not a dirty person. I am a highly educated, gainfully employed, mostly normal New Yorker.  I do not engage in unusual social behavior (or at least nobody has ever told me that I do).  Yes, I’m a bit of an eco-geek, but I don’t pick up random furniture or clothing off the streets just for the sake of preventing it from ending up in a landfill or lowering my consumer footprint.  I’m afraid of bedbugs, you see.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get them anyway.

My close encounter with New York’s increasingly infamous and marauding blood-sucking arachnids lasted three months.  Now that I’m no longer the leper of my group of friends — the girl nobody wants to sit next to at dinner or air-kiss on the street corner for fear that a superbug might somehow leap off my person — my number is the first one they all dial when they wake up with strange rashes, welts, and itchy spots.

I offer my own story to them — and now, virtual friend, I will tell it to you.

One night when I flopped into bed and switched on my bedside lamp, I saw what looked like a little piece of dry skin on the sheet.  Upon closer inspection I determined that it was almost certainly part of a small, clear (and dead) bug.  Actually, it reminded me of the skin that a snake sheds when it molts (which I clearly remember from visiting a science museum in Rotterdam, New York, when I was about 8 years old), only it was the size of a tick.  I cringed but decided that whatever it was, it wouldn’t kill me.

A few days later, I woke up to find three small drops of blood on the bedsheet.  Each one was no bigger than a pencil eraser and they were all smudged just a tiny bit. I happened to have a co-worker who had bedbugs at the time, so I had been diligently (read: neurotically) studying up on the warning signs.  This was a big one: Little, smudged drops of blood, lined up in a row, suggest that the bug was disturbed or dissatisfied while it was feasting on you and crawled along the sheet to find an adjacent snack site.

That day I called our property manager’s office to let them know we thought we might have bedbugs.  They sent an exterminator that afternoon who was entirely thorough and no-nonsense about things.  He took out his flashlight, poked around the bedroom, looked at our sheets, then at me.  We had bedbugs, he said.

It turns out that bit of buggy skin I had found was actually the exoskeleton of a juvenile who had fed on one of the two of us and grown too big for his own backside, so opted to leave it behind for me to find.  Blech.

In the end, the only live bedbugs that the exterminator ever found were little babies — tiny red pindots — hiding out in an empty laundry bag that we’d just unpacked, fresh from the wash-and-fold.  The bag must have sat on the floor next to a bag of infested laundry, he reasoned.  I suppose we’ll never really know that for sure.

So that’s part one of my bedbug saga.  And if you stick around, next week I’ll tell you how I got rid of our unwelcome guests (finally) without bug-bombing, fumigating, and all the other useless methods you hear people talking about.  The process was relatively low on poison, but high on effort.  They’re tenacious little buggers, and they really can be your worst nightmare.  Also next week I’ll woo you with the tale of a book of poetry that spent two weeks in the freezer alongside a Gucci handbag, asphyxiated Marc Jacobs flats, and nights spent with an LED flashlight gripped in my sweaty, paranoid palm…

In the interim, here are a few facts I picked up from our exterminator and have broadly found to be true based on countless hours of web research:

  • You can see them, despite rumors that they’re too tiny to make out with the naked eye.  They’re about the size of an apple seed when fully  grown.
  • Bedbugs like to live within about 8 feet of a regular blood source, which is why they tend to hang out near the bed.  You’re only likely to see them out and about during the day if you have an extreme infestation.  Under normal circumstances, they only come out in the very early morning, a couple of hours before dawn.  Most of us tend to be in our beds at that time, but the exterminator told us about a woman who was a writer and spent her nights writing at her kitchen table while sitting on a chair with an old seat cushion.  The exterminator treated this woman’s bedroom, but she was still getting bites on her legs.  Then he happened to grill her about where she was spending her time at night, flipped up the cushion on the chair, and found the buggers.  Jackpot.  (Creepy.)
  • Remember that mosquitos bite, as do spiders.  Rashes, allergies, and all sorts of other skin conditions will freak you out if you let them. Not everything is a sign of a bedbug infestation.
  • Definitely do not freak out and start throwing your belongings on the street.  You’ll spread the bugs, and that won’t help you in the long run. And don’t pack up your stuff and move into a new place right away, or pack up your stuff and head home to mom’s.  You’ll just bring them with you.

Here are a couple of good reference sites on bedbugs, replete with gross bug photos: