The Bed Bug Chronicles Parte The Seconde

…in which we continue our woeful tale of The War of the Bed Bugs.bed-bugs

The Big Shot Professional exterminator made off with my infested camping cot and 200 shekels (approximately 65 US Dollars), leaving me with a completely empty apartment…or was it?  I strongly suspected that in folding up said cot, he had dumped some unwanted guests onto the quarry stone floor.  There were deep gaps between the quarries, which could harbor anything.

So I got out the bleach.  In Israel we don’t have wimpy 1% sodium hypochlorite bleach like we do in America.  We have 5%, which burns through rubber gloves, shreds clothing, and makes your eyes water as soon as you open the bottle.

I dumped enough into a bucket of water to kill anything, or so I thought, and swilled it around the stone floor, letting it fill the cracks between the stones.  Then I turned on the fan and got out of there.

After a severe coughing spell that threatened to activate my stress incontinence, I ambled over to my favorite coffee den in the Shuk to think things over and decide what my best course of action was.  Actually, my choices were few and none.  I couldn’t go back to Ron’s, seeing that he was also infested; and I really couldn’t visit myself on any of my other friends because of the risk of contagion: the little beasts conveniently travel in the seams of your clothes, the soles of your shoes–not to mention your luggage.  Damn, I was stuck.

I hit upon one good idea: the apartment came with a flat tarred roof that extended over three buildings.  I had access to it via an Arab-built wooden ladder that my landlord, a contractor, had doubtless saved from one of his many construction projects.  In Israel, the construction industry is almost exclusively run by Arabs. Instead of scaffolding they often use purpose-built ladders, which are abandoned, in many instances, after they are no longer needed.  They are sturdily built, reminding me of the ladders that the Pueblo Indians use for getting up and down the levels of their dwellings.  Mine was perfect for getting up to the roof.

There are two things that reliably kill bed bugs: dry heat above 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and prolonged freezing temperatures.  So after my coffee I went next door to the variety store and bought a bunch of black plastic bags, the better to cook bugs in.  I went home and loaded my clothes and anything else that could take high heat into these bags and hauled them up to the roof.  Also my luggage and my dog’s doggie travel carrier.  I must have made 25 trips up and down that damn ladder.  Let’s not forget that I was still suffering from the concussion I got from taking one on the chin, and it was becoming apparent that I had “done something” to my right shoulder in the same wreck, so I had to be extra careful on my excursions up and down the ladder.

Did I mention that the ambient temperatures were hovering around 40 Centigrade/104 Fahrenheit?  Well, they were.  Good for killing bedbugs, bad for people on Lithium.  I was feeling it.

Finally everything I owned was either on the roof baking or in the freezer freezing.  I wondered if my external hard drive would survive freezing, but since it certainly would not live through broiling I thought the freezer was the better risk.

As I stood there wheezing in the bleach fumes, it occurred to me that I no longer had a bed.  My Israeli mattress, a 3 inch thick strip of hard foam, was on the roof baking.  The Professional Expert Exterminator had pronounced that to be unnecessary, but I was taking no chances.

Under normal circumstances, I would have simply tossed the mattress on the floor until I could get some semblance of a bedstead; but Jerusalem quarry stones are not only very hard, but uneven and pointy in many places.  Not only that, but the proximity to my bleach job might melt the foam, and kill me via asphyxiation.

Then came one of those “lightbulb moments.”  Indeed, I did have a bedstead!

Three years ago, I was forced by family circumstances to give up my long-term lease on a beautiful house in the same neighborhood.  A very sweet couple moved in, and I had left them my bed; but they had their own, and they were storing mine–for when I returned to Jerusalem for good.

I called them, and within the hour had my old bed back.  Tears of gratitude welled in my eyes–or was it just from the bleach?

Nightfall, and I hauled myself back up the ladder for the last time that day, to fetch my mattress down.  Something nagged at me, paranoia perhaps, that I should run down to Davidka Square and buy myself a brand new mattress wrapped in plastic, but then again I had had the cover off of this one and inspected all the seams for signs of bed bug poo, and eggs, and all of the signs and symptoms of infestation, and found none.  I told myself firmly to have confidence in my own expertise, and plunked the mattress on my good old bedstead.

This wasn’t just any bedstead.  I had bought it in 1989, just after my ex-husband moved out and took every stick of furniture in the apartment with him (he was moving into an unfurnished apartment, you see), including the bed.  So I invested in this wonderfully simple bedstead made of hardwood slats, that came apart and went together in a few minutes’ time, perfect for the young upwardly mobile professional lifestyle.

The first night was blissfully bugless.  I awoke, anxious, and checked myself over for new bites; and finding none, rejoiced.  Even my dog was scratching less.  She is allergic to everything, and, as I found out later, bed bugs feed on anything with blood in it, including warm-blooded animals.   I took her food out of the freezer, and took myself out for Israeli Breakfast to celebrate.  If you haven’t had Israeli Breakfast, you haven’t had breakfast.  I will tell you all about Israeli Breakfast another time.

It is with great sadness that I must inform you that the third morning dawned with a peppering of itchy welts.  I freaked out.

I called Sammy.

Sammy showed up the next morning with a backpack sprayer and a respirator mask.  Now, I thought with satisfaction, we’ll get something done about this.  I stood guard over his van, which he had left in a tow-away zone, while he did his thing.  He came running out of the apartment followed by a noxious white cloud, coughing through his mask.  Jesus, I thought, what the hell did he spray in there?  I didn’t care, as long as it killed the damn bugs.

I was told to abandon the place for three hours, and then wash the floors very well.  VERY well, he said, looking significantly at Noga, my dog.  Sammy raises champion Pekingese, and knows what dogs can handle and what they can’t.

I left the apartment to air out for eight hours instead of three, just for good measure; then I went after the floors with a vengeance.  I washed them VERY well.  But I did NOT wash the bedstead.  I wanted anything lurking in there to be DEAD.  And so it was that as I was inspecting the bed, a very sick bed bug tottered out of one of the joints of the headboard.  It looked like its shell was melting.  Ugh, and GOOD.  Death to you!  Death!  And then another one, fat with my blood, dragged itself out from beneath one of the legs.  Oh. My. God.  Even now the hair stands up on the back of my neck to think of….what it…..had certainly done….

To be continued……

The Bed Bug Chronicles

Five years ago, if anyone had asked me what I knew about bed bugs, I would have shrugged my shoulders and stared at them blankly.  Now, unfortunately, that is not the case.  I’ve had much more experience with bed bugs than I can stand.  I know that others have had, and unfortunately are still having, far worse experiences than mine; but you have to understand that mental illness makes it much harder to deal with the anxiety and downright horror an infestation of these nasties can cause.  And there is plenty of reason to believe that if you don’t have a mental illness before you get bed bugs, you may very well acquire one.  There are numerous articles in the psychology and psychiatry journals speculating whether latent mental illness can be triggered by the severe stress and distress that bed bugs cause.

In fact, I just read a case study from the National Institutes of Health documenting the suicide of a woman with mental illness for whom a prolonged bed bug infestation was just the last straw.

Any of you who have had to deal with these disgusting creatures will agree: in the “gross!” department, it doesn’t get much grosser.  They bite you in the middle of the night, when you are asleep and defenseless.  You can’t even feel them biting, because first they inject you with a dose of local anesthetic so you won’t feel their proboscis piercing your skin.  Try to starve them by going on extended vacation; they laugh!  They can live up to a year without feeding.

I asked my rabbi who was responsible for the creation of bed bugs, anyway.  His response?

Hell.”

 

bed-bugs

Oh man, do I agree with him.

My first bed bug experience was four years ago.  I was a patient at an Ayurvedic hospital in South India.  I was extremely ill with a digestive malady that turned out to be a rare form of Cystic Fibrosis.  I had lost 20 lbs because all of the food I ingested came right out the other end (sorry), and I was literally starving.  Regular medicine had decided that I was some kind of crank, so I was getting no care from that quarter.

The Ayurvedic hospital was heaven on earth.  Located high in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, the hospital itself was situated in the middle of a vast tea plantation. Did you know that tea comes from a Camellia bush, Camelia Sinensis?  Well, let me tell you, when hundreds of thousands of Camellia bushes are all in flower, the night smells just like the fragrance the angels smell when they come out to sing in the morning.

But let’s get back to the subject at hand.

One morning I woke up with itchy bumps on my neck.  They looked like this:

My First Bed Bug Bites

My First Bed Bug Bites

 

Note the peculiar proximity to my jugular vein.  My first thought was, Damn, they have accurate mosquitos here.  Then I thought, Hmmm, it said in the brochure that they don’t have mosquitos here.  That’s why you don’t have to worry about malaria like you do everywhere else in India.

The following morning, my neck looked as if someone had taken a pastry wheel (the kind with sharp spokes, for poking holes in pie crusts) and run it up and down my neck a few times–and horrors! my pillow was covered in splats of blood, to match the holes in my neck!!!  OMG.

I ran down to the dining room to see if anybody there could tell me what this was.  A woman from New York gave me a knowing look and pulled some pictures up on the communal computer: yup, no question.  Those were bed bug bites.

I roared into my doctor’s office, panting, and blubbered out my story, spewing tears and snot.  He patted me on the hand and told me it was OK.  It was NOT OK.  I dragged him up the hill to my cottage and showed him the hideous pillow.  He yelled for the servants to come and give me a new mattress.  I barked orders to also clean the bed frame very well, very well.  The staff did not speak English, so I implored Doctor-ji to please, please explain to them.  I think he did, for they grudgingly took their pails full of water and crude eucalyptus oil (I was later to discover why they used eucalyptus oil) and swabbed down the bed frame.

I always travel with my own goose down pillows, because I have two fused vertebrae in my neck, and I have to have the right pillow in order to not be in agony.  So I stuffed my poor pillows into the washing machine (“for the convenience of the guests”) and set it on 90 degrees Celsius, which is just short of boiling.  I won’t bore you with the details of trying to get the pillows dry again, because “for the convenience of the guests” the hospital did not have a dryer, and it was monsoon season, freezing cold and raining most of the time.  Previously, I had thought it entertaining to watch the staff hanging the sheets out on the topiaries to dry, only to snatch them back inside the next moment because it had begun to rain again.  Needless to say, I no longer found that entertaining, now that I was doing it myself.

I fought the bed bug battle for weeks.  Changing the mattress changed nothing.  I moved to a new cottage.  They were there too.  Eventually I learned that  the locally made (and very crude) essential oil of eucalyptus repelled the little bastards, and by soaking the bed and covers every night before retiring, I could get a night’s sleep without worrying about waking up bitten bloody.  Reeking, perhaps, but intact.

Fast forward to August, 2013.  I have just arrived to Jerusalem after a two-month absence.  In June I had rented a tiny apartment, built entirely of Jerusalem limestone quarries, quaint but suitable for my needs. I come and go often, and really just need a place to land when I’m there.

The place came unfurnished except for a large wardrobe, so I brought a large and sturdy camping cot with me from America, to stand in for a bed.  It fit nicely into a golf bag that I used to have for the purpose of flying with odd size objects.

I stayed a few days with a good friend of mine who lives half a block from my new apartment, very convenient, and got everything set up before I moved into my digs.  I’ve stayed with him countless times in the past.  He’s a dear friend whose chief failing is that he is incapable of saying “no.”

And so it was that his good friend, we’ll call him Bob, arrived from a large East Coast city with FOUR enormous duffel bags packed with STUFF.  OK, I get it that he was moving back to Israel permanently, but he was also planning to stay with my friend who can’t say no, and there was simply no room for his stuff and mine.  So I pulled my belongings out from under the pile of his bags, and packed myself off with my few possessions to my little apartment down the street.

Two days later, my friend calls me and says, quite sanguinely, “Guess what?  A big fat bed bug crawled out from under my pillow this morning, full of my blood.  I squashed the sucker.”

I broke out in a cold sweat.  I mean literally, I was suddenly drenched in sweat.  My heart was racing.  I could hear the blood pounding in my ears.  I was having a Bed Bug PTSD flashback!  No, don’t laugh, I mean it!  I couldn’t swallow.  I felt like I was going to faint, or have a seizure, or a heart attack, or die.

“Fuck, Ron,” I managed to squeeze out.  “We didn’t used to have bed bugs at your place.”

“Yeah, I know.  I’m thinking Bob.  He lived in this fleabag room full of roaches and God knows what else.”

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“Uh, what was the name of that exterminator you had over to get rid of the fleas?”   My apartment had been full of fleas when I moved in, so I got Sammy the Exterminator and he took care of it.  I gave Sammy’s details to Ron and closed my phone, still shaking.

Shit, all my stuff had been lying at the bottom of the luggage pile, literally, with Bob’s fleabag flophouse stuff on top of it.  Well, all I could do was wait and hope.

I didn’t have to wait long.  A couple of days later I woke up with bites.  Not only that, but my little dog Noga was furiously scratching.  God, I was hoping it was just the fleas again.

But it wasn’t the fleas.  The next day I found a big old bed bug dead between the camping mattress and the cot.  I picked it up in a tissue and put it in the freezer for evidence.

I didn’t call Sammy.  I didn’t like how he had handled the extermination job at Ron’s.  I’m not going to go into the technicalities of bed bug extermination, but it’s a big, long, involved, labor intensive process, and Sammy hadn’t done any of that.  So I called a big extermination company that’s supposed to be the only outfit in Israel that really knows their bed bug business.

The guy showed up in a company uniform, very official.  He took one look at my stone cave of an apartment, and said, “You can’t have bed bugs here.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because you can’t.  I’m a professional, and I say you can’t have bed bugs here.”

I showed him my bites.  I went to the freezer and got my frozen bed bug specimen out, but when I opened the tissue it fell apart.

“That is not a bed bug,” he stated triumphantly.

“Look at all the cracks between the stones!  Look at that old wardrobe!  Look, I found that bed bug (he snorted a snort of contempt) in my bed!”

He tore the covers off my cot and announced, once again, that I could not possibly have bed bugs there because he was a bed bug expert.  Then he took his little flash light and looked into the sleeve where the tube of the cot goes through the fabric.

“You have bed bugs,” he announced officiously.

“Where?  Where?  Show me!”

He pointed his flash light into the sleeve.  I peered.  There was a whole colony of bugs in there, big ones, little ones, cast-off molted skins….I felt both triumphant and sickened at once.

We had a quick huddle about what to do, and concluded that he would take the cot away and “recycle it,” whatever that means, because if we put it in the dumpster it’s certain that someone would take it home with them, even if we marked it “bed bugs,” because that’s how it is there.  So he folded the thing up, in spite of my fears that he would dump bugs and eggs and everything into the cracks between the stones of my floor, and took it outside, announcing that it would be 200 shekels for the house call.  I shelled out 200 shek.  He stuffed it in his pocket and stumped away with my former bed.

To be continued…..

 

Feeling Suicidal? Change the Channel.

Things have been going in a dismal spiral that has been threatening to turn into a full-blown tailspin.  For the last three days I have ruminated night and day about death: fervent wishes for a speedy natural death, and in the absence of that, turning to my old faithful suicide plan, painless, tidy, nothing to clean up and nobody’s trauma.

There is no good reason for this, if you discount the deep spell of depression.  Here I am in the Holy City of Jerusalem at the holiest time of year, and especially now that it’s sukkot:  the happiest time of the year for us Jews.  So what’s the deal?

OK, so I have had to move twice in two months because of the bedbug plague that is sweeping the city.  Bedbugs get me down.  They give me more than the creeps, little bastards sucking your blood all night and hiding out in your underwear drawer during the day!  Chutzpeh!

I had the second apartment exterminated three times, each time involving leaving for 10 hours, then scrubbing the floors and all the surfaces multiple times so as not to poison myself and my dog.  Nevertheless I have had a nasty headache for weeks, which has gone away after moving to the third apartment which so far (please G-d) does not have bedbugs like the first two.

Along with all the other bedbug mitigation work, I have to wash and dry everything over and over.  Right now everything I own is on the roof baking in the sun (they can’t stand heat and drying), which was fine until it rained the other night.  I have not had the strength or ambition to climb back up on the roof and undertake damage control.

So circumstances are getting me down, yes.  It’s an overlay on the bipolar depressive phase.  But it could be deadly, because just a few hours ago I was planning when and where.

And then I broke my policy of strict isolation (because when I’m like this I am such a zombie, flat affect, flat voice, no reactions) that it freaks people out and is very unpleasant for me.  And if they’re people I like, I might just burst out crying and that just makes things worse.  So isolation it is, and yeah, I know, it’s not good.

So this evening a very special event was planned in my congregation in honor of this day being the passing of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in the year 1810, who was a revered spiritual leader, and is the guiding spirit of many members of our congregation.  I had to go.  I wanted to see everybody, hear what the rabbi had to say (even though I only understand about every third word of his Hebrew) and generally be with my peeps.  I did not set myself a time limit: if I got uncomfortable, I gave myself permission to leave at any time.

Not only that: since my Hebrew birthday falls out tomorrow, I booked myself a massage tonight.  Yeah.

When I got to the party I was feeling pretty low and didn’t know if I would be able to handle it.  But there was singing and someone was playing a djembe (African hand drum) badly, and I saw another djembe that didn’t have anyone playing it.  Now, I happen to have studied djembe for four or five years, and played with an African dance troupe.   I have stopped playing because of severe issues with my hands, but since I was planning to die I didn’t care if I fucked up my hands more so I picked up the free djembe and warmed up quietly, getting the feel, and then the old feeling came back and I popped right back into the common West African dance rhythm BADA bada BADA bam, working the bass and the slaps and tones and rim shots just like old times.  And for some reason, I didn’t break blood vessels in my hands or hurt my two bad wrists or any of that.  And feeling the groove of the people singing and getting underneath the inexperienced drummer and giving him a boost so he could ride my wave was intoxicating.

I forgot all about suicide.

Then I went and had a 90 minute massage.

Now I’ve taken my meds and am going to bed, with a lot to think about.

I’ll think about it in the morning.  At Tara.  Or maybe in the Old City.

Exhausted

Today has been utterly exhausting.

First of all, my apartment was invaded by hordes of tiny cat fleas from the gazillions of cats that flood Jerusalem like a heaving tsunami of fur.  Someone long ago had the bright idea of bringing in cats to get rid of the rats, and it worked very well.  We have no rats here.  What we have instead is a steadily increasing population of feral felines with no natural predators.  So they spread themselves and their associated vermin as far as the eye can see, and farther.

So today was the day of the extermination.  The exterminator, Simi, is a nice guy.  He doesn’t speak a word of English so my Hebrew got a workout.

My dog, Noga, has an ear infection, so after I let Simi in to do his thing, I went to the shuk to buy a muzzle for Noga so I could take her on the train.  That’s the law.  400 shekel fine (about 120 USD) if you get caught without.  Noga took it like the champ she is.

We got to the vet OK, and found out that we were illegal in a number of bureaucratic ways, so we fixed that.  The bureaucracy fix plus the exam and the medicine for the ear infection amounted to around NIS 650, which is around $200.  An expensive day.

Then I had to leave Noga at a friend’s while I washed the poison off the floors–not an easy thing, because the floors are made of chunks of stone with some kind of mortar loosely holding them together.  This apartment is cobbled together from materials that range all the way from the 1700s to the 1960s.

Now I’m washing the sheets and towels that were exposed to the poison.  I’m washing them in a friend’s machine, and he has just discovered that a guest from America brought him a present: Bedbugs.  OH NOOOOOO!!!!!  So after washing these sheets in 90 degree Centigrade water (100 C. is boiling) I’m going to take them right down to the laundromat and dry them on HOT HOT HOT.

Meanwhile I have no sheets to sleep on.  I was planning to borrow some from said friend, but…nooooo…..

So it’s almost 6 pm, and my strength is gone.  I’m hoping the linens place in Davidka Square is still open, but first I have to muster the strength to walk over there.

I’m very grateful that Marci came through early with her interview last Wednesday, and it was a powerful one at that.  I’ve had a rash of people canceling at the last minute, and she saved me from having to interview myself!

Tomorrow, however, you will get to hear from me, as my interviewee this week was unable to make it.  So tune in for the next edition of Breaking the Silence of Stigma, tomorrow morning starting at 7:00 EST, as I reveal the deepest darkest depths of my journey with mental illness and stigma.