Bed Bugs: Finding Grace in the Grotesque

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There is nothing funny about having bed bugs. I tried to tell everyone in my Jesuit community this, but a few guys continued to post jokes on the bulletin board and make silly announcements about our community’s growing bed bug problem. That is, until they themselves got bed bugs. The jokes stopped quickly.

It couldn’t be so bad, I thought. I had no idea what a bed bug looked like, I just knew that they were devouring me by night and going invisible by day, leaving my pillow stained with my own blood (thanks) and their feces (thanks). I figured it would be a quick fix, you know, throw some stuff away, have a guy spray some chemical stuff, heat treat your textiles (i.e. spin in dryer at high heat for 45-60 minutes) and then steam treat the rest. Voila.

Not.

I still have nightmares about bedbugs. I am now three months bed bug-free and the fear lives on. Every time that static electricity built up in my bedding mimics the feeling of a crawling insect, every time I have the slightest pock of blood anywhere on my body, I leap to action, heart beating double. I’ve calmed a little, but there have been many midnights when I leapt awake and tore my bed apart, hunting for the tiniest sign of bed bugs with headlamp and fast breath. If I could fall back asleep, there was a good chance I would have nightmares. Bed bugs don’t mess around. They get into your sheets and then into your head.

Seven rounds of heat-treatment later, my wardrobe is probably a half-size smaller. And my irrational fears grew a half-size larger, with mini panic attacks, nightmares, shame and nearly constant discomfort. I threw some stuff away I probably didn’t need to. I oven-treated books that I gave to a friend. Even though bed bugs really don’t travel, I only slept in friends’ and my family’s basements for the months I knew I was ‘infected’. I remember journaling, “I don’t feel safe in my own room.”

We have no idea where they came from. Maybe from a guest room across the hall from me. Maybe from the Chicago El train, maybe from visiting a client, maybe from that fancy restaurant I went to or from a flannel shirt I bought at the thrift store. I don’t even have a bed, as my community mates (un)humorously reminded me again and again. How did this happen?! They built nests in my closet, my armchair, in my prayer bench, and in my underwear drawer. But in the end, it doesn’t matter how or where they came from: bed bugs are an equal opportunity destroyer.

They don’t carry disease, they don’t cause severe injury, they don’t damage property, and my bites don’t even swell. It’s the dirty, shameful feeling they bring; it’s the fear that I’ll pass them on; and most of all, they’re the itch I can’t scratch, the victory I can’t win, the anxiety I can’t resolve.

Bed bugs are terrible because they break my rules of engagement. I’m the kind of guy, for better or for worse, that approaches the world, with all its beauty and terror, task to task: “Done, done, done. Next!” In reality, though, I’m learning that I don’t have tasks – I have fears. Behind every “to do” is a lurking anxiety: “You must do this immediately, or else: (insert awful consequence)” Completing a task is resolving an anxiety. Well, I’ve crossed bed bugs off the list 6 times now.  After one hound dog hunt, two moves, three exterminations, four up to five up to six other community members infected, and seven (in the biblical, “foreevvvverrrr” sense) months of living hell, I think I’ve won. I think it’s over. I think I’m clean. I *think*. That’s the thing. I’ve said this six times already.

No matter what we threw at the bed bug problem, it never resolved. The catharsis of victory was never mine. Instead, I tried to adjust to the perpetual insecurity of it all- a real shock to my normal way of doing things. This anxiety shook me more than I wanted to admit, more than I wanted to explore in prayer. But when I did talk to God about it all, I learned a lot about myself, my compulsivity and my own obsession with completing tasks clean and simple. Bed bugs don’t work like this. And nor does most of the world, I’m coming to find out – ** Insert crushing feeling of forced maturing** – the stacked challenges of my refugee clients were never neatly resolved. Nor are questions of food justice in sprawling cities, equal access to education or chronic homelessness. Nor is a little brother’s diagnosis of lymphoma a month before his wedding. We celebrate victories where we can win them, but resolution often seems perpetually and painfully just out of reach.

At the “end” of it all I believe, plain and simple, that the bed bugs were exactly what they were: an annoying infestation of a particularly tenacious pest. Admitting my helplessness, lifting my hands from the control switches, and looking to God with a pathetic chuckle, I think I’ve been able to ‘move on’ in a way that I never could have alone. Unfortunately, ‘moving on’ unfortunately doesn’t mean ‘winning’ or ‘resolving’ the current anxiety, but just learning how to live with it, learn from it, and share the burden with others as we truck onwards.

Even if our most loyal traveling companion is Irwin, the exterminator.

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The cover image, from Flickr user kristina, can be found here.

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