One normal morning in mid-2018 my son came out from his room upset. In his hand was a dead bedbug, smashed under his leg when he rolled over in the night.
Instantly things changed. “Normal” went away, and every aspect of our lives became a response to a mostly-invisible enemy. We started by tossing out most of what we owned. Down the trash chute went books, record albums, the record player, old notebooks. The few books we couldn’t part with: Sage’s mom’s songbooks and notebooks, a copy of Harriet the Spy from the 1970s, these all went in to the freezer in the hopes that anything hiding within it might freeze to death. Pictures and artwork came off the walls. The ones we loved most all went in to the freezer, the ones we didn’t care so much about went in to the trash. Mattresses and couches were wrapped in plastic so nobody else would be contaminated and then carried outside to a dumpster. New mattresses were brought in and hermetically sealed in plastic.
And then the battle began. Dirty clothes were kept in plastic bags tied tightly to keep any hidden bedbugs inside. They were hauled to the laundry room, placed immediately in the washer (always hot water) and then placed in to clean plastic bags. Before we would go out in the world, we would shower, pull clothes from a sealed plastic bag and go out.
Library books were taken back to the library where they were specially treated before going back in to circulation and we read from e-readers. We programmed our robot vacuum to vacuum the entire house daily. And when it finished, we emptied it in to the garbage, carefully looking through the dust for any signs of insects. Then we would wipe the inside of the dust container with a Lysol wipe and send the vacuum back to its docking station.
The battle went on for several months with a mostly invisible enemy. Pest control people would come over, the cats would stay overnight in a boarding kennel and we’d spend the day in the library so as to not breathe in toxic fumes. Then we would come home, reassemble the house, fetch the cats the next day, wait and worry. Were there bugs somewhere in the house? We didn’t know. Was that a bite or just somewhere that itched and got red when I scratched it? I don’t know. We lived with the assumption that whatever we had was contaminated. And a couple of times we were right. We only saw 2-3 bugs in the entire six month journey, but even one was enough to start the whole process up again, send the cats to the kennel, us to the library and then wait. And in between we would sit in our mostly-empty apartment, all our things in bags with even the books we read kept in sealed freezer bags when we weren’t actually reading them.
There was never a point where someone came in and said “OK, they’re gone.” because while it is easy to confirm presence, the absence is impossible to prove. You just know that they aren’t in the places you looked. Maybe you didn’t look in the right place. Maybe they are in a neighbouring apartment just waiting for you to let your guard down. At its worst, we spent most of our waking hours worrying about what the future held. Would we always be in this situation, living out of plastic bags? Would we have to move? If we moved, would the next place have the same issues? Could we just throw away everything, move to a new place with only the clothes on our back and start over?
But as time went on, there were no more signs. The months of treatments, careful clothes washing and wearing, daily vacuuming and sanitization of the vacuum all paid off. We could return to normal.
Except now there is a new normal. We keep far fewer books and buy fewer used things. Where the recycle room used to be a cornucopia of new furniture, books, and records, now we walk by it and look suspiciously at the really great mid-century sideboard that we would’ve snapped up without question years before. The vacuum doesn’t run every day anymore but it runs at least twice as often as it used to. Our new normal now is filled with precautions to prevent and mitigate the impact of future issues. But it’s also become better in many ways. Our minimalist house is more organized and tidier all the time than it was. It’s hard to have a mess when you haven’t as many things to make a mess with. In many ways it feels better than it did before the first bug was spotted. Every possession we own is something we care about – we’re not filling our home with mindless clutter.
And I’m thinking of that as we sit in our home now with another invisible enemy. The precautions are different but the feeling is the same. We ask ourselves “Is it here among us now?” or “Are things looking better because they’re getting better or are we just not seeing the big problem we have?” But having dealt with bedbugs and come out on the other side, I have a valuable experience: knowing that it can feel completely hopeless with no way out and not even a way to tell for sure you *are* out. And still, we got to the other side of it.
And we got another great opportunity: After throwing nearly everything away and living in limbo for six months, when we did go back to resuming a normal life, rather than mindlessly going back to a life identical to our previous one, we could make conscious choices about what we wanted our new life to look like. I hope we can do the same thing with our current situation soon.