Originally published here.
My name is Scarlett Cayford and I had bedbugs.
They’ve been gone from my life for over a year now, those tiny lentil-shaped embodiments of horror and of filth, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fear they inspired in me. Every time I feel an itch, or am bitten by a mosquito, I feel it rise in me again. Impossibly tiny; impossibly awful.
I live in London and that means that I share my space with all manner of small scurrying things. As I stand behind the yellow line in the hot Underground station, mice move beneath the tracks. If I’m late walking home, the yellow eyes of urban foxes follow me. Most recently, my lovely, clean, wonderful flat was invaded by a rat, who was dispatched with only when he got a paw stuck in a trap and got caught when he tried to escape through the dishwasher. It was not a nice experience for me, my housemates, or the rat whom I was not allowed to name on account of the fact that we had to kill him.
But by far the worst of my experiences was with the insidious immortal life form that is the bedbug, which invaded my first flat in North London after I’d been living there for six months.
There are any number of ways you can get bedbugs. Hotel rooms are the obvious ones, but you could pick them up by standing too close to an unfortunate stranger on the bus. I suspect our home invaders were brought in by a new couple who moved in at about the same time, who were French, quiet and lovely but exist only in my memory as The Carriers.
I noticed it before my boyfriend did, because I am allergic to anything that bites me, except for him, and what showed up in the form of small red dots on his skin was huge red welts on mine. There were paths of bites down my neck and across my arms, maddeningly itchy and tenacious. Despite my courageous attempts not to scratch, they stayed for weeks, between my fingers and even on my palms, forcing me into long sleeves and gloves.
There aren’t the same laws in place here as there are in NYC, and so I did not involve my landlord but battled them alone, armed with rubbing alcohol and lavender oil. New to London, neither of us could afford the costs of a professional exterminator.
I sprayed down the mattress and the linens, until our room reeked of a booze-hungry grandmother. I went to bed each evening in socks, leggings, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a scarf, slathered in oil and bitterly angry. I love sleeping; I love bed, and to have it infested by something upset me beyond reason. My one place of retreat was a battleground, and I was losing.
But I told no one –- not my other flatmates, not my friends. Because quite apart from the anger was the shame, akin to being an 8-year-old with head lice, the certainty that despite all evidence to contrary, the bugs had moved in because I was dirty. If people asked about the bites on my hands, I said I’d been sitting in the park and was attacked by mosquitoes. I washed everything I owned on the hottest setting properly. I bagged up my clothes. I touched people less. I felt diseased and disgusting.
We got rid of them in the end by sacrificing our bed. Yep, after nearly a month of battling bugs to no avail, my boyfriend and I snapped our bed in the middle, then went to the landlord citing ordinary wear and tear and got the bed replaced. (In the UK, loads of apartments are rented furnished. Ours came with the big furniture.) To this day he probably just thinks we’re energetically kinky in the sack. We took the old bed to the skip, threw out all our linens, washed everything that could fit in the washing machine and crossed our fingers.
We were lucky -– it worked. The bugs were gone and my existing bites healed -– and also scarred. I’d never been more relieved in my whole life. I’m still scared of hotels. And, perhaps unreasonably, French people.
But I still don’t really understand why I felt the way I did. It might be because the whole incident was genuinely, literally scarring. At one point I had upwards of 50 bites and felt repulsive, hot and ill. No matter how innocent the host might be, there’s no ignoring the fact that showing that kind of disfigurement, even to people who like you, opens you to judgment.
And people are scared of bedbugs, as they should be. I didn’t want to be Bedbug Girl. I didn’t want to be The Carrier. So even though it might have been easier to ask for help, especially in a time where nearly everybody has suffered from them at some point, I suffered in silence and waited it out. Shame exists in so many forms, but it seems absurd that I was so utterly embarrassed by something that was beyond my control.
But that’s bedbugs for you — a curse that gets you on a psychological as well as a physical level. I hope never, ever to go through it again. As I write this, I’m lying on my bed. When I finish it, I’ll inspect the seams of the mattress. You should too.