Sprue stories: The Bedbug Edition

Photo © Bloody Marty

Photo © Bloody Marty

Last summer, I had a bit of a scare. As I lay in bed one night, my leg became oddly . . . itchy. I scratched, but the itch returned. My hand crept down again and again, even though I told myself I was making it worse. Finally, I yanked off the covers and took a peek. There, on my leg—on MY leg—were three small bumps, all in a row.

My heart seized.

Google, which I raced to check, confirmed that the three-bump pattern was linked to bedbugs. I stripped my sheets, flipped over my mattress, and found, around the edges, small black bits that I was certain resembled the Google images of bug-infested beds.

Google also told me it was not recommended to vacate the premises or sleep in a different room, which risks spreading an infestation. In a rare instance of disobedience to Google, I refused to return to my room. Instead, I sat huddled and horror-stricken in my dining room at my computer late into the night.

The following days were bleak. I’m not proud to say I threw out a whole lot of things, washed and dried everything else several times and then kept it all in trash bags, getting dressed at my front door because I was so scared I might spread the bugs. I dragged my roommate out to buy an expensive vacuum from Manhattan’s only 24-hour hardware store, I thought about nothing but bedbugs, I told several people we had bedbugs, and I even canceled a visit to Buffalo to see my sister because—again—I feared spreading the bugs. I slept little and cried a lot. In short, I completely lost it.

And then we didn’t have bedbugs after all. The inspector came, looked at the “samples” I’d been collecting, looked at my mattress, and laughed. The “infestation” on my mattress was dust, collected over a year of not vacuuming the mattress. The samples were of, well, baby beetles and cockroaches, which is still gross but better than the alternative. The panic I’d undergone was just that: panic. So . . . phew. Embarrassing, but . . . phew.

Good things that came out of my bedbug scare include:

– I threw out some old clothes that I had no business wearing in public anyway.
– I bought a vacuum.
– I learned a valuable lesson about finding out before freaking out.

I also learned a lot about bedbugs. Now that I’ve learned a lot about gluten, too, I want to talk about how much they have in common.

First, a few differences.

Bedbugs are not found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats (though look out for grain weevils).
– Gluten cannot move around of its own volition (though flour particles can drift around in the air for a while, according to some sources).
– Bedbugs do not give bread its characteristic elasticity and stretch.
– Gluten does not suck your blood.

On to the fun part: the similarities.

Both are very small.

But it’s a myth that bedbugs are microscopic. They are more like the size of that single crumb that can take someone with severe gluten sensitivity out of action for days or weeks.

Both affect some people and not others.

Bedbugs are picky creatures. Monogamous, even. A couple can sleep together in the same bed every night and the bugs might attack one of them but not the other. Relatedly, bedbugs cause reactions in some people and not in others, and the range of response severity is wide (some rare people are even allergic to the point of anaphylaxis). Gluten, too, affects some people and not others; a couple might eat the same pasta dinner every night and the gluten might destroy one set of intestines but not the other. And for those lucky affected individuals, symptoms range from minimal to life-threatening.

Both disproportionately affect travelers.

Bedbugs can be spread through staying in hotel rooms and taking buses and other modes of transit, where they are dislodged from luggage or traveler’s clothing and hide out awaiting you. Brooklyn writer John Hodgman claims that the first thing he does upon returning home after a trip is strip naked and wash the clothes off his back—and that this is what every careful human should do to avoid bedbugs. Similarly, as we all know, traveling is difficult for those with gluten issues. You need to pack safe food to bring with you or locate gluten-free dining establishments, or else risk encountering gluten along the way. There has been some concern about the bedbug epidemic’s effect on New York City tourism, and in my opinion the small number of gluten-free-only establishments per capita here in the Big Apple should scare away tourists, too.

Both can cause an itchy, painful skin rash.


Rash caused by bedbug bites

Dermatitis herpetiformis (triggered by gluten)

Dermatitis herpetiformis (triggered by gluten)

Yes, I chose less severe images than I could have.

Both hide in cracks and crevices.

According to the University of Kentuckybedbugs camp out “along and under the edge of wall-to-wall carpeting, especially behind beds and sofas; cracks in wood molding; ceiling-wall junctures; behind wall-mounted pictures, mirrors, outlets and switch plates; under loose wallpaper; clothing and clutter within closets; and inside clocks, phones, televisions and smoke detectors.” According to Jane Anderson at About.comgluten hides in the crevices of your toaster, scratches in nonstick pans, pores of cast iron pans, scrapes in cutting boards, and minuscule cracks in spatulas, spoons, and rolling pins. And yes, people do have concerns that both gluten and bed bugs are in your computer (bugs in the warm hard-drive-y area, gluten in the keyboard and mouse, and both, of course, swarming the internets).

Both attract online sensationalizing.

I discovered a whole world I never knew existed (and sort of wish I still didn’t): bedbugger forums. These are places where the afflicted gather to share horror stories about the extent of their infestation, botched exterminations, and quixotic home control methods. They are zones of intense fear and fear-mongering, stoked to ever greater levels, and they are not a good way to avoid the whole stress thing. Your life is over!, many of the posters trumpet. You can run, but you’ll take them with you! Buy a PackTite or all is lost! Similarly, although celiac disease forums often feature reasonable, supportive posts, they also have plenty of hopelessness to go around. If you want to send yourself into a downward spiral of obsessing over your illness, you can manage it by poking around celiac.com. Actually, a very thoughtful and perceptive post on one of those bedbugger forums made the connection quite well:

“I just wanted to say that I have a chronic, potentially debilitating illness and when I was first diagnosed I went to some internet forums and after reading story after story, thought my life was over. But it turns out most people with this illness actually end up living full and painless lives (these days, anyway) but these were not the people posting on the forums! . . . people come together in these support forums when they are not having success solving their problem, or when they need understanding or advice, not when the problem is under control and they aren’t thinking about it anymore. So we are not getting an accurate picture of success and failure here.”

Both also attract media sensationalizing.*

Bedbugs are everywhere! Bedbugs are spreading! Bedbugs are in your local public library! Bedbugs are (ironically) in the Health Department! Bedbugs are in your lingerie! Bedbugs are at home, at work, and at school! Similarly, gluten is everywhere! 50 percent of Americans are sensitive to gluten! Gluten is at home, at work, and at school! Gluten is in envelopes (maybe)! Gluten is in ketchup (maybe)! Gluten is in imitation crab (well, yes, but it’s gross anyway)! Gluten may not be in your lingerie but I wouldn’t count on it! *Some of this is sensationalizing; some of it is just true. But it’s comforting to call it sensationalizing.

Both have the capacity to drive you completely and utterly bonkers. . .

Especially if you’re me. Both are linked to stress, anxiety, and depression. The mechanisms are not completely clear from research in either case, but from a common-sense standpoint, it makes perfect sense. Bedbugs and gluten cause physical pain and are hard to eradicate, a bit disturbing, and potentially thought-consuming. Having them around is stressful? Um, obviously. It’s easy to become anxious that either might be present at any time and in any place, especially with all the hype surrounding both.

. . . but not if you deal with the problem correctly, in about the same way.

Step 1 is to make sure you actually have a problem (by inspection or by diagnosis).
Step 2 is to do your research carefully, not believing everything Google tells you.
Step 3 is to learn to love cleaning.
Step 4 is to put into practice all the necessary cautionary measures you can.
Step 5 is to be patient.
– And Step 6, though really you should be doing this all along if you can, is, as in many things, to stay calm and avoid catastrophizing. Life will go on, even if you do come across bedbugs or gluten.

Remember: Bedbugs bite, gluten bites, but don’t let your life bite.

Now that I’ve finished grossing you out, are there any similarities or differences I’m missing? Have you had any experience with bedbugs? If so, I’m so sorry! Any other tips for handling it?

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13 thoughts on “Sprue stories: The Bedbug Edition

  1. Dad says:

    Well, I don’t get easily grossed out, so I’m not overly subject to panic, but…

    if it might be helpful, the best way to accomplish Step 3 (because, let’s face it, you’re unlikely to every learn to love cleaning if you don’t already) is to a) do it dutifully and b) minimize the amount you have to do.

    E.g., when you come home, immediately look through the mail and throw out (into the trash or recycle bin) everything you don’t need: junk mail, sales and advertising, etc. Now you don’t need to attack the giant, leaning tower that menaces your dinner as it threatens to topple over from the middle of the table.

    or, when you need to vacuum, but first have to pick up all your clothes off the floor, well, by the time you finish with the clothes, you forget to vacuum….so toss the clothes in a hamper as soon as you take them off. Now the floor’s ready to be vacuumed.

    Of course, these are hypothetical examples, and have nothing to do with any real person of my acquaintance, living or deceased 🙂

    • Molly says:

      Ha! Thanks for the hypothetical advice. I’ve been keeping my room in an uneasy state of near-cleanliness since the week before Ally’s last visit, so it’s a start.

  2. Amanda says:

    Love this post and compare/contrast between bed bugs and gluten! 🙂

    I had a bedbug panic that lasted at least 3 months, with me waking up in the middle of the night, finding a flashlight, and frantically looking at all parts of my mattress. LOL. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus, it was all I thought about. I don’t think I ever actually had them because nothing came of it, and I eventually calmed down.

    • Molly says:

      I still don’t really know what my bites were—just a random insect from outside, probably? I was averaging something like 2 hours of sleep per night during my time of panic, which I’m sure only fed the madness!

  3. SStitches says:

    I had a bedbug crisis in a London hotel 3.5 years ago when it was all the rage to think about bedbugs. I was sure I had them there, complained to the staff, told a bunch of folks . . . ended up with shingles instead.

    I love your comparisons!

  4. Oh my god, bedbug panic is INTENSE! We had it too a few years ago and basically moved OUT of our apartment with our daughter (not telling any of our neighbors!) and my husband boxed up most of our possessions and tossed all of our bedding, and we paid huge amounts of $$ just to find out that our bb’s (as we called them) were actually NOT bb’s, thank goodness, but some kind of beetle thingie. Kinda gross, but in a totally different league as you know. So glad you escaped the bb’s too! Love the comparison to gluten. Hilarious as always 🙂

    • Molly says:

      Thanks! Yes, it was gross to find out that the bug that crawled over my hand (while I was lying awake on my couch avoiding my bed because I thought it had bed bugs in it) and saved for the inspector to look at was actually a baby cockroach. But better than bed bugs. Crazy! At least our landlord paid the inspector for us…

  5. […] gluten caked into everything. Perhaps there will be a few million of gluten’s cousins, the bedbugs. (Though one broker assured me yesterday that “bedbugs are over.” […]

  6. […] Recently, as I was cataloging the changes to my malleable psyche effected by my celiac diagnosis (nearly six months—that magical number—ago!), it occurred to me that were I to encounter a boggart in a dark alleyway, wardrobe, or Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, it would probably now take on the form of a gigantic piece of wheat bread shedding crumbs as it staggered toward me on crusty legs. (Before, it definitely would’ve been bedbugs.) […]

  7. […] When buying secondhand, there’s always one thing left to worry about: that is, of course, bedbugs. […]

  8. Anna says:

    One time I thought I had bedbugs . . . but it turned out I had ezcema.

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