It took me far too long to realize I had bed bugs.
I grew up camping and playing in what Laura Ingalls Wilder called the Big Northwoods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. I spent months covered in red, swollen mosquito bites. So when I woke up itching in a hotel bed while attending a conference a few years ago, I thought only of the biting, buzzing insects to which I have always seemed extra sensitive.
I was away fewer than 48 hours, but when I awoke in the predawn to return home, I began to put two and two together. There were so many bites. Even the most persistent mosquito isn’t that active. Then there was the itching.
So. Much. Itching.
I tried to be discreet and play it cool on the flight home, but in my aisle seat agony I fantasized about furiously combing my stubby nails up and down my arms and legs. Not to mention my back, my abdomen, my feet . . . I was miserable, and I don’t have a good poker face.
My friend, Robyn, picked me up the airport and confirmed my suspicions. It was bed bugs, all right. Fortunately, she spent considerable time in Latin America and had consoled a friend with a parasite/insect/critter encounter. She knew just what to do.
We drove to a nearby TGI Fridays and consumed some syrupy concoctions along with veggie burgers and sides of fries and mayonnaise. We laughed about how, having brought only skirts on this short jaunt to California from the brisk environs of Pittsburgh, I sat bare-legged and pock-marked next to a very put-together, well-ironed and beautifully-cheekboned man on the plane.
Robyn assured me I hadn’t brought any “hitchhikers” along with me. I had barely unpacked and never put my suitcase on the bed. (Ladies, use the suitcase rack! I implore you!) So after stopping at the drugstore for some oatmeal bath packets and hydrocortisone cream, I returned home to try to take control of the situation.
I left my suitcase in the garage and stripped down at the washing machine. I put all my travel belongings in the freezer to kill any possible tagalongs. I washed everything on “hot” (something I never normally do). That was the easy part.
While treating the growing swath of bites covering my body, I engaged in an obsessive cycle of worry and paranoia.
I slept fitfully for several nights, waking up convinced bed bugs were crawling on me or setting up their new metropolis in my mattress. I would spring out of bed, throw on the light, rip off the sheets and inspect every crease and cranny with a racing pulse. In a way, the physical traces of the critters were more manageable – I could itch them with free abandon and intermittently stop to apply some sort of gel or ointment. But those little buggers left quite the psychological impact.
Eventually, I got a prescription for steroids at my university’s urgent care center from a medical professional who appeared somewhat beleaguered. I had the feeling I was something like his 47th bed bug case that week. He barely lifted an eye when I showed him the red trail of bites along my arms.
The steroids perhaps helped the bites heal faster, but they did nothing for my mental state. I admit I am a delicate flower when it comes to prescription medications. As a kid, I didn’t even want the the mildest dosage of Dimetapp because it gave me “funny dreams.”
Fortunately, while I survived my short-lived relationship with Prednisone, thoughts of bed bugs have lingered. But in a productive way. No longer do I sleep on a mattress I have not thoroughly inspected. After check-in I leave my suitcase outside the hotel room while I undo those pesky hospital corners on the bedsheets, and search the crevices for any guilty parties. I am mindful that that any hotel, any Airbnb, can be infested. The presence of bed bugs has nothing to do with cleanliness or reputation.
I also remember that it’s not a good choice to go on a work trip wearing only skirts.
Journey On, Janes!
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