I finally feel able to write about the awful situation in my home I’ve alluded to in recent months. I haven’t been able to even talk about it until now because it mentally traumatized me and caused me huge distress. This is a lonnnng post – you might need a brew.
I have stayed away from home overnight only once in the last decade and that was when I went to London in October for my exhibition. I had a brilliant time, but what I didn’t know then was that the short 36 hour trip was going to have long lasting consequences.
As you know, I have mast cell disease and regularly get hives and other blistery type issues with my skin, so if I wake in a morning with a red blotch on my body I don’t think anything of it. At the end of February, however, I was noticing several red blotches on my legs and they looked more like bites than hives. I have an exaggerated reaction to insect bites, so even though it was unusual to be bitten by midges in winter it still didn’t worry me.
The alarm bells started ringing in early March, when I woke to a dozen bites on my legs and when I checked my torso I had a dozen more. I had no clue where they could be coming from but was starting to feel very uneasy. One night, I woke at 3am to go for a wee and as I put the light on I came face to face with a small, black midgy looking insect on the duvet near my face. Eugh!!! “Oh well, that must have been the biting culprit” I thought to my myself as I squished it flat, then I got up, had a wee and went back to sleep.
It must have preyed on the back of my mind, though, because I woke again the next night at 3am to go for a wee and this time saw 2 other midgy looking insects on top of the duvet. It totally creeped me out.
I did a bit of Googling and, to my absolute horror, discovered the only thing they could possibly be were bed bugs 😮 I’d read about bed bugs in novels, but thought they were something from the last century found in hovels where the poor lived. Think again! Apparently they are alive and kicking and a massive problem in our modern, 21st century world. Cities like London and New York are rampant with them in hotels, B&Bs and rentals, and they have also become a problem on trains, planes, in movie theatres and even in schools. I must have brought them home with me in my suitcase from the stupidly expensive hotel I stayed at in central London. However, you can also infest your house by bringing them in on second-hand & vintage furniture, soft furnishings and fabrics and according to pest control they love second hand books!
Bed bugs feed on humans. They are mostly nocturnal (though will bite during the day if they’re hungry) and are attracted to the carbon dioxide we humans breathe out. They tend to live on, or near to, beds where people sleep and feed on us while we sleep but you can also find them in couches, train, plane and theatre seats…………in fact, anywhere humans spend lots of time. A bit like ticks, they first inject you with a local anaesthetic so you don’t feel them, then they suck your blood like a vampire. They start off as eggs, which hatch within about 6-10 days into nymphs. The nymphs then feed and shed, doing this a few times before they become adult bugs. Just one adult female bed bug can lay 500 eggs over her lifetime, and they double their population every 16 days, so it only takes a few months to have a huge infestation. They are wingless so can’t fly, but can make themselves totally flat which means they can live in the seams in mattresses and bedding as well as minuscule cracks and crevices in bed frames, skirting boards…..even in your walls. They are notoriously difficult to get rid of, having become immune to most pesticides.
My bed is my sanctuary. I spend a minimum of 17 hours each day in there, as it’s the only place I am comfortable and relatively pain free. I have it set up to specifically for my needs, with an orthopaedic mattress, 5″ thick feather and down mattress topper, electric blanket which can be left on all night and several pillows which support my body as I sleep. The thought that my bed was being shared by potentially hundreds of blood sucking insects which came out in the dark as I slept was horrific. Truly horrific. My skin is crawling even writing about it, let alone living through it.
I Googled bed bugs til my fingers bled. I then armed myself with a roll of large bin bags, cypermethrin pesticide, diatomaceous earth powder, a dust mask and gloves, bought myself a steam mop from Argos, purchased new bed-bug proof mattress and pillow covers and set about trying to rid myself of my new house guests.
Firstly, I bagged up all my bedding so as not to infect the rest of the house as I moved it, and washed everything I could at 60C for at least an hour, then tumble dried on a high heat setting for at least 30 minutes. The one thing which kills bed bugs is heat above 60C. However, I have a king-sized bed so my thick, very expensive, mattress topper wouldn’t go in the machine and I had to chuck it out. I left it in a bin bag in the back garden ready to go to the tip.
I then hoovered my mattress and bed frame, including underneath – it was really difficult trying to move a heavy, king sized mattress on my own bearing in mind my shoulders have dislocated in the past I then emptied my bedside drawers, dresser draws, chest of draws and hoovered them before putting all my stuff back. I then hoovered the floor, going round the skirting boards with the crevice tool.
I then steam cleaned my mattress, bed frame and floor (I have wooden floorboards). Plus Bertie’s bed as he sleeps in my bedroom.
I then sprayed my mattress and bed frame with insecticide. You can imagine how I felt about that, as I am hugely chemically allergic and this is where I sleep 😥.
I then enclosed the mattress in a bed bug approved mattress encasement cover, which zips all the way round. I also used bed bug approved protectors on my pillows after they’d been washed and dried.
I then isolated what I thought was my clean, bed bug free bed by placing all 4 legs in shallow plastic pots (I used some small food containers), before putting diatomaceous earth powder in the pots. DE is a natural substance and dries out bed bugs if they crawl through it. I also puffed in a light dusting of DE into where my bed frame met the bed heads and around all the skirting boards.
This whole process took me 12 hours! I was on my knees with pain and exhaustion by the time I finished, but I had to do it all in one day for it to be effective. I slept much better that night in my clean bed.
Two nights later I woke to bug bites and freaked out to the point of hysteria.
I called my local council, who provide a cheap pest service via Rentokil, however it was now mid March and the pandemic had begun. I had to wait 48 hours before anyone even rang me back and another 2 days for a visit, all the while knowing bugs were crawling over my bare skin and biting me while I slept.
In the meantime, I decided to deal with the mattress topper I’d left in my back garden. I thought it best to wrap it in thick plastic sheeting, place it in the boot of my car and take it to the local tip. As I was wrapping it, though, I could see dozens of bugs from nymphs to adults frantically running around – it was totally infested and I think had become the ‘nest’ where many of the bugs were living. I wanted to vomit.
The local Rentokil chap has been to my house before to deal with mice in my loft, so he rocked up and sprayed my bed, bed-frame and wooden floor with massive amounts of really, really strong pesticides. While cypermethrin has been proven to be safe for ‘normal’ people, I am not normal. I have mast cell disease and my immune system has a particular hatred of all things chemical. I was as worried about the pesticide as I was about the bugs.
Three nights later I woke at 3am, pulled back the covers and found bugs crawling about on my sheet. I was past myself.
Rentokil came back 2 days later and sprayed again, this time actually into the hollow metal tubes which make up my bed frame. However, we were entering lockdown and he couldn’t come back to monitor the situation as he had lung disease and had to be shielded for 3 months. I was on my own.
Two nights later I woke to find 2 bed bugs crawling on my sheets. I was absolutely hysterical and honestly thought I’d have a nervous breakdown. To make a horrific situation even worse, that day the lockdown was announced. We were all petrified of dying, my parents were on their own with no care, I wasn’t getting a wink of sleep, no-one could book a Tesco slot for food, my disabled friend was wondering how he was going to manage and my elderly neighbours were ringing me to ask if I could get them shopping. Everyone was relying on me, despite the fact I am also ill and without help.
I’d read online about a whole room heat treatment, which was able to kill bed bugs without using any further chemicals. I asked Rentokil for a quote and they told me it would be £2,800. What-the-FUCK?! I told them not to be bloody stupid and they immediately brought the price down to £1,900 but it was still outrageous and in any event I didn’t have it. What despicable company exploits sick people, who have a pest problem during a global killer pandemic?!
I found another company online called Cimexine who provided heat treatments. They were members of the British Pest Control Association and seemed to know their stuff, so I rang them and was told a technician would ring me back. Three days, and several more bug bites later, I’d heard nothing so rang them again crying. I was then told they could heat treat both my bedroom and lounge for £980 which is a massive amount of cash for someone like me but I had to find the money and get it done.
Before they arrived, however, I had to once again strip the bed and wash all the bedding. Wash all my clothing. Remove certain items from the bedroom, such as all my award winning photographs which I keep in a box under the bed, as well as things like my old vinyl records. I then had to bag up all my cosmetics, candles, aerosols – anything which might be affected by high heat. It took hours and, as I was already totally exhausted from lack of sleep and worry about coronavirus, I have no clue how I did it.
I also could no longer sleep in my bedroom, it was just too traumatizing. Luckily, I had an old bed and mattress in my shed which I’d taken out of my 2nd bedroom when I turned it into a photograhy room, so I put that up in the lounge and slept there. However, bed bugs can travel through walls to reach their host (they can even migrate from one apartment to another in a block of flats) and I was petrified they would move from the bedroom to the lounge. So I taped the bedroom door up with thick plastic sheeting and duck tape, and isolated the bed in the lounge by putting its feet in tubs filled with DE powder.
At 7.45am on the Friday after lockdown was announced, two young lads who didn’t look old enough to have left school turned up to heat treat my bedroom and lounge. I had told the company that I was in the vulnerable group, so was assured they would wear masks and gloves while in my home. That didn’t happen and neither did they make any attempt to stay 2m away from me or each other. So I decided to leave them to it and go to my parents for the 4½ hours it took for them to do the treatment.
I arrived home afterwards to find a house that looked like it had been ransacked. They have to move furniture and other items around the room while it’s being heated and the place was in total disarray. Despite the mess, however, the first thing I did was to go round disinfecting everything I thought the lads had touched, which took ages, and I wore a mask the whole time because the virus can linger in the air for up to 3 hours. I then set about tidying the lounge where I was sleeping, but couldn’t even face venturing up to my bedroom.
When I did eventually go upstairs a few days later, my lovely sanctuary was worse than I could have possibly imagined. Not only did it look ransacked, but they had sprayed yet more pesticides everywhere – it was all over the bed frame, bedside tables, dressing table, and the floor was soaked in the stuff. They had also put a tonne of DE powder around the room. I was horrified and stood and cried. One of the reasons I’d gone for the heat treatment was because of my fear of strong chemicals in my home – I had no clue they were going to use them anyway.
I’d been told not to clean the rooms for at least a week, so I slept in the lounge for the next fortnight – although they sprayed the bed in there they hadn’t sprayed anything else as I was fairly certain the room was bug free. The spare bed wasn’t set up for my health, though, and I’m still on crutches from the ensuing back and pelvic pain. I spent hours washing everything in the bedroom to get rid of the chemicals and hoovering all the powder up. I found bugs everywhere. They weren’t confined to my bed – I found a dead adult behind my chest of drawers on the opposite side of the room, found 4 dead nymphs in a pot of hair wax on my dressing table, and even found a dead adult in a wax candle on my landing!!
The first night I spent back in my bedroom was awful. This lovely place, where I’d always felt safe, relaxed and happy, was now giving me nightmares and no longer felt like it was mine. I barely slept for the first week, pulling the covers back every hour on the hour to check for bugs, and although I’ve now been back in there for 17 days I still can’t sleep with the light off. Bed bugs can live for months, sometimes as long as a whole year, without a feed so I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep with the light off for a long time to come………if ever. So far so good, though, and I’m finally starting to relax a little now, though if I wake in the night I still pull the duvet back to inspect the bed.
One of the worst things to come out of this whole experience is that I will never, ever spend another night away from home. There is a bed bug pandemic going on around the world, and I can’t contemplate sleeping in a hotel or a bed where someone else has slept – I’m even wary of ever going on a train again. I’m grieving for the restrictions that places on my already hugely restricted life, but I simply couldn’t risk having to go through this a second time. I spend 1 night away from home in a decade and this is the result – either I’m massively unlucky or bed bugs are rife. I’d been infested for months, yet during the day there was no sign – I change my bed every week and there were zero clues. They hide so cleverly you would have no idea you had them.
To have to go through this on my own was bad enough, but to deal with it in the middle of a killer pandemic was………….well, there are no words and it’s no exaggeration to say it has mentally scarred me forever. I don’t think I’ve ever been hysterical about anything in my entire life, but I was hysterical over this and I never want to go through anything like it again.