12.04.2009

Public Service Announcement

I promised an explanation as to why I've been rather absent in the last couple of weeks, and here it is. This will not be a story about dating, but it has definitely affected not only my dating life, but my LIFE life.

Following my breakup with Fucktard, I scoured the city for an affordable apartment in a neighbourhood that I felt safe in. On my 29th birthday, I came across a great sounding ad on Craigslist and rushed over on the subway to see it before dinner with Scooter. The apartment was perfect; one bedroom, a large living room and bathroom, and lots of closet space. There was even room in the kitchen for a little table and chairs. The building was extremely clean and management rather particular about who they allowed to move in. I ran to the bank for a money order and two days later, I found out that I got the apartment. I was so thrilled; it was like my luck was finally starting to turn around.

When I moved into the building at the end of March, I found out from the superintendent that a professor lived above me. For the most part, he was very quiet, until late one summer night, when I awoke to a very strange sound. It took me a few minutes to realize what it was: bedsprings. I covered my head with a pillow, trying to drown the sound out. Listening to others have sex does not help The Beast lay dormant.

Toward the end of July, I realized that things had been quiet above me for weeks, and I knew the professor had moved out. On August 1st, a girl moved in, and brought with her a super special fun surprise.

Approximately two weeks after she moved in, I noticed this very odd line of bites down my leg in the morning. I had been sitting outside having a smoke the night before, and brushed them off as mosquito bites. A few days later, I noticed what looked like a rash on my back of my leg, and figured it was due to a switch in laundry detergent. When I discovered another strange cluster of bites one morning, I took the sheets off my bed and washed them in hot water, as I am very allergic to dust mites, and figured that would take care of the problem. No such luck. Off and on for weeks, these strange bites would show up. I tried to convince myself they were spider or mosquito bites, but my intuition started to tell me that this was something much worse. During my apartment hunt, I remembered stumbling upon a website that reported bed bug infestations across the United States and Canada. In fact, I didn't look at a few buildings because they appeared on the site. I started to research bed bugs, including what to look for and how to find them. I took my bed apart and scoured every inch of my box spring and mattress for any sign of bed bugs, but I couldn't find anything and thought I was just being paranoid. A few more bites later, I ordered mattress and box spring covers in a panic, figuring that, if it was bed bugs, it would trap any existing bugs inside and prevent others from getting in.

The bites took almost a week to heal, would turn from pink to dark purple, and were insanely itchy. I was embarrassed and afraid to tell anyone what I feared was happening. I had already been struggling with insomnia, and it grew worse. One morning I woke up and it felt like my back was on fire. I walked over to the mirror, lifted my shirt, and turned around. My entire back was absolutely covered in bites. Thirty, likely more. All different sizes. I sat down and cried so hard I had a headache for the rest of the day. At that point, I knew the problem was bigger than me, so that night, I took a deep breath and told Stef and my mom what was going on. Naturally, they were horrified, and told me that I had to go to the superintendent and tell her what was happening. I did, and she gasped when I lifted my shirt up to show her my back. She promised to call building management and have the problem taken care of immediately. A day later, she knocked on my door to tell me that management had asked if I was a dirty tenant, and when she told them I was definitely NOT (cleanliness has nothing to do with bed bugs, by the way), they said that normally it was up to the tenant to call in professionals and pay for it. However, since I was a good tenant, they would do me "a favour", but treat only my apartment. I had done my research and knew that treating the entire building was the only way to put an end to the infestation, but I also knew that they wanted to keep the problem a secret, so there wouldn't be a mass exodus of people moving out. Thankfully, I found City of Toronto documents online, stating that treatment and payment of extermination is the sole responsibility of the landlord, not the tenant. I printed and bookmarked that shit.

The superintendent (a very obese and slightly "off" woman) would often knock on my door and ask me asinine questions: Had I been on vacation recently? Did I purchase second hand furniture? Did I pick them up on the subway? They refused to believe that the girl who moved in above me brought them in, as she wasn't complaining. I told them countless times that some people react harshly to the bites (me), and some people have no reaction at all. Because of this, infestations can go completely undetected. I told them that it was just too much of a coincidence that I didn't have a problem until she moved in above me. Realizing that they were trying to put the blame on me and I might have to break my lease and leave, I started documenting my bites with photographs in case they tried to take me to court. I spoke with my lawyer friend, and he provided me with the name and number of a good landlord/tenant lawyer, should I require their services.

My insomnia went from worse to terrible. I woke up constantly, often hitting myself, thinking that things were crawling on me, which at some point, they were. For those who don't know, bed bugs are mainly active at night, with a peak feeding period about an hour before dawn. Attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale and our body heat, they inject us with anticoagulants and anethesia while they draw blood. Here's a scary fact: bed bugs can survive up to 18 months without food. They move fast and hide extremely well. I did not go a single night without a bite, and tried, without avail, to find one. Late one night, I fell asleep on the couch and was bitten all over my upper arms and stomach. My reaction to the bites grew worse, and I would be swollen and itchy within minutes of being fed on. And yes, I'm completely aware of how disgusting that sounds. Try living it.

To prepare for the spraying, my parents came to Toronto to help me vacuum and pack everything I owned. My dad made me throw out my expensive down duvet and pillows that couldn't go in the washer and dryer. He and I crawled around with a flashlight, trying to find ONE stupid bug, but found nothing. All my clothes had to be washed, bagged, and sealed. Half my clothes went back to London with my parents, so they could leave them outside in sub-zero temperatures for at least a week to kill them off. Basically, I was packed to move, but I wasn't going anywhere. I would have moved out, but I knew I would just take the bed bugs with me. My parents took my cat to London with them, as she couldn't be in the apartment when they sprayed.

I had to take time off of work to finish packing and moving everything away from the walls. I grew increasingly impatient with the superintendent, who would constantly knock on my door and suggest that I throw out my couch (which had belonged to my late grandmother) and bed. I told her that I didn't have the money for new furniture, and under no circumstances would I bring new furniture into the apartment anyways. She refused to set foot in my apartment, and I could hear her spraying Lysol outside my door. I felt like a leper. One article I came across in my research stated that "People suffering from bed bugs frequently experience shame, fear, isolation and insomnia", and can leave you "psychologically terrorized". I was feeling all of this, and then some. I could not have friends over, as my greatest fear would be for them to take bed bugs home with them. I had become a hermit, only leaving my apartment to go to work. I had to refrain from itching the bites, terrified of scarring or someone noticing. The apartment I loved so much became somewhere I hated to be, and my bed a source of fear. It was no way to live, but I didn't have a choice.

I was home to let the exterminator in, and he was only there for about twenty minutes, as the superintendent and I had a discussion in the hallway. We looked at him in surprise when he stepped outside my apartment wearing a huge respirator mask.

"That was quick?" the super said.

"Small apartment," he replied, and told me that although he didn't see much of anything, there was definitely evidence of them on my box spring. I needed to stay out for at least three hours, and make an appointment for a second spraying in three weeks.

When I got home from work that night, I opened the door and choked on the smell. It was like everything had been doused in paint thinner. Coughing and gasping for air, I ran around opening windows, and took an Advil to ward off the headache I knew was coming.

As a follow up to the spraying, I had to vacuum EVERYTHING every two to three days. Baseboards, closets, drawers, outlets, light fixtures, bed, couch, etc. As I didn't want to wrestle with my bed every other day so I could vacuum it out, I slept on the couch, where the bites continued. When I told the super, she contacted the exterminator to find out if this was normal. It was, as the bugs would be coming out to feed, and would hopefully get into the residue, which was effective for three weeks.

For a week I vacuumed the hell out of my box spring, hoping I could sleep in my bed again. Finally, I decided to set up a fortress, in order to keep any bugs from getting in. I read that bed bugs couldn't walk through Vaseline, so I put Ziploc containers under the legs of my bed, and smeared the inside of the containers with the Vaseline. I put my bed back together and put on sheets fresh from the dryer (drying on high for at least an hour will kill the bugs and the eggs. Sadly, I'm an expert now.) Although I woke up all night long, I found no sign of any bites in the morning. Ecstatic, I was sure my Vaseline moat had worked. The next night, I was not so lucky. I woke up to two bites on my calves, and I knew that at least one or two bugs were still camping out in my box spring.

My life consisted of waking up, checking for bites, going to work, coming home, vacuuming for an hour, making dinner, and sitting down to eat by about 8:30pm. I didn't want to run or work out. My kitchen looked like a quarantine zone. I had to climb over bags and boxes to get to my microwave. My insomnia would catch up with me at about 2pm, and I would hit the wall. If I managed to dream, it was always about bed bugs. I cried. I postponed dates (what was I going to do? Invite a guy back to my place and explain the quarantine piles in the kitchen and bathroom? Hey, let's move this party to the bedroom. DON'T LET THE BED TOUCH THE WALL! Oh, I'm sorry, did you get Vaseline on your leg? DON'T LET THE BLANKET TOUCH THE FLOOR! Itchy, you say?) I missed out on a job opportunity. I drowned my sorrows in Diet Coke, chocolate and potato chips.

The Saturday before the second spray, I was up late talking to a new guy from POF. I went to brush my teeth and realized that I was itching my boobs. I lifted up my shirt and my entire chest was covered in bites. They had somehow managed to crawl inside my shirt and bit me while I was AWAKE. I fucking lost my shit, screamed, "NonononoNONONONO!" and ran to the couch, ripping the cushions off, checking the pillows, trying desperately to find a bug. And there was nothing. I sat down and I started to cry. I cried so hard, I began to hyperventilate, and I'm told it was likely a panic attack.

My mother came to visit last Thursday for our annual Christmas shopping weekend, which was the day of the second spraying. I had not bothered to unpack anything, so I dumped all my clean and bagged laundry in the bathtub, and as a last and desperate measure, I ripped the gauze stuff off the bottom of my couch and box spring, so the exterminator could spray right up inside. I had already made the decision that if I were to get any more bites after the second spray, I was looking for a new apartment, and would leave my couch and bed behind. The super told me they would spray as many times as necessary, but physically and emotionally, I couldn't do it anymore. If I unpacked all my stuff and the bugs came back, I would have to repack for a third spray. And a fourth. And etcetera. I told her that the second spray was make or break. I couldn't live like that anymore, or I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

Mom and I stayed at a hotel for a few days, and although I woke up often, I still slept better than I had in a very long time. When we got back to my apartment on Saturday morning, I could tell that the spraying had been much more thorough than the first time. My closet, dresser, and nightstand drawers were all open, and you could see the residue. My couch cushions had been moved, so I assume they were sprayed. Dude must have seen my desperation, what with the Ziploc/Vaseline fortress of solitude. I knocked on the super's door, and she told me that he had been there for nearly an hour, and said I should be okay and to unpack.

That night, I slept on the couch as a test. I woke up, searching my entire body for bites and couldn't find a single one. The next night proved the same. I put my bed back together (but did not deconstruct the fort; I'm not insane), and have slept in my bed for over a week without a single bite. I still wake up with my skin crawling, but I imagine it will take some time for the paranoia to go away. I'm not convinced that this is the end of it, and I'm in no rush to unpack, in case I need to break the lease and leave in a hurry.

I wasn't telling many people what was going on with me, as I was horribly embarrassed and didn't want to be treated like a leper. However, over the past few weeks, there have been an increasing number of articles about bed bug outbreaks in the city of Toronto, ie. here and here. People are calling for government action, because if something is not done about this, bed bugs will continue to spread. There are so many misconceptions about these bugs and the people who get them, and a lot of people mouth off about what they don't know, so I'm urging people to get the facts and take precautions, if at all possible. They can be found in many hotels worldwide, and I suggest that before you stay at a hotel or look for an apartment, check this site: www.bedbugregistry.com. Sadly, these are only the reported cases; I'm sure many people have no idea that the site exists. Should I be forced to break the lease and move, I will be reporting my building, along with a call to the City Health Department. This has been a nightmare that I haven't been able to wake up from, and one of the worst things I've ever had to deal with. My motto as of late has been "I just want my life back".

In other news, I have a date on Saturday night. Wish me luck!

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