Tag Archives: depression

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.

bed-bug-bites

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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The bathroom IS an important part of the story.

This was meant to be a lighthearted “second-favorite book character with celiac disease” post, in the vein of my Moaning Myrtle review. I was going to point to a particular scene in a Beverly Cleary book and say, “See, Ramona knows.” But when I located and reread the Ramona the Pest scene, I remembered some details that got me all righteously worked up about education and sent this post off in a totally different direction. I hope you’ll pardon my soapboxing. If you came for lighthearted, please check out my archives, where you will find plenty of absurd musing on fairy tales and brain fog. No doubt I will be back tomorrow babbling about citrus (no, but seriously).

If you’re still there, let me paint the scene for you: Kindergarten teacher Miss Binney corrals her rowdy class into something approaching order and reads aloud the story Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, an inspiring tale about sticking to your guns and living up to your promises. In the face of great doubt, Mike proves the worth of his ancient steam shovel by digging the entire cellar of the new town hall in a single day, dawn to dusk. It’s a good story, and the kids, pesky Ramona included, are rapt. But they’re especially interested in one detail that the picture book skips past:

As Ramona listened a question came into her mind, a question that had often puzzled her about the books that were read to her. Somehow books always left out one of the most important things anyone would want to know. Now that Ramona was in school, and school was a place for learning, perhaps Miss Binney could answer the question. . . .

‘Miss Binney, I want to know—how did Mike Mulligan go to the bathroom when he was digging the basement of the town hall?

As I said, I was going to chop off the excerpt there and leave you with, “Anyone who places that much importance on being able to get to the bathroom probably has…” (…you see where I’m going with this.)

But when I kept reading, I found a part I’d forgotten: Miss Binney’s response.

Miss Binney’s smile seemed to last longer than smiles usually last. . . .

‘Boys and girls,’ she began, and spoke in her clear, distinct way. ‘The reason the book does not tell us how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom is that it is not an important part of the story. The story is about digging the basement of the town hall, and that is what the book tells us.’

Miss Binney spoke as if this explanation ended the matter . . .

Miss Binney’s blunt summation, “not an important part of the story,” read from my present perspective, suddenly struck me as incomplete and misguided, as well as indicative of a larger problem in the way we’re socialized in school. Here Ramona and her classmates are thinking critically about a basic human function, and Miss B., the civilizing influence, the authoritative mouthpiece of society, is standing in front of them and explaining that it’s not important. As the story goes on to remind us, Miss B. showed her class the bathroom first thing, and she’ll surely lead them there in single file the requisite number of times a day, but other than that she doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want to hear about it, and doesn’t want it popping up in her picture books.

Ramona—and good for her—learns from this that there are some lessons school won’t teach her. For now, at least, she “knew and the rest of the class knew that knowing how to go to the bathroom was important,” but for how long? How long until this understanding is beaten out of her by well-meaning teachers and other prudes? How long until she’s pretending her digestive system doesn’t exist and whispering the word bathroom like a shameful near-obscenity, if at all? And from there, how long until she’s bashfully tacking “Sorry, TMI” onto descriptions of stomach upset in a support group or a doctor’s office—or keeping quiet about it altogether?

Am I being melodramatic? Maybe a little. But whether or not I’m taking away what Bev wanted me to (and, judging from this article, I’m probably not), it’s what I’ve got. Sure, Miss Binney’s not precisely saying that using the bathroom in itself isn’t important; she means that it’s not related to the overall story, which is about the value of a good day’s work done right. But, even setting aside the implication that  access to a bathroom and the necessary breaks to use it are not important to a good day’s work (which is in itself a troubling idea about labor to be teaching to our little future workerbots in public schools, and one beyond my ability to properly dismantle in the parenthetical space I’ve granted it here), Miss B.’s message includes more than her spoken words. Her clear discomfort, her abrupt response, her effort to shut down the dialogue and move on—all of these things tell the tykes that the bathroom is not something one should talk about.

I understand that early education teachers must live in constant fear of the off topic, and I understand that this is not without reason. Still, I wish Miss B.’s response—and the response of the real teachers on whom she is no doubt based—had been different.

I wish she’d said, “Good question, Ramona.” I wish she’d said, “Sometimes writers leave stuff out, even really important details like this, because they’re focusing on other things.” I’d love it if she’d said, “You know what, Ramona? That’s a plot hole that has never occurred to me in all my years as an educator. You just might make a fine editor one day.”

In sum, I wish she’d taken the question seriously and faced without discomfort a subject no one ought to disown, least of all a teacher of kindergarteners (a poop-obsessed clan if ever there was one). Because if we were all taught from kindergarten age to speak up about things that struck us as strange or unfair, and to discuss those things that strike us as compelling or important, we might have a better educated, more self-assured, and perhaps more just population.

More specifically, if we were taught from a young age that the bathroom, and what happens there, is important (which it is—digestion affects virtually every system in our bodies, and what comes out at the end of the process is just as worthy of attention as what goes in at the start) and that it’s okay and important to talk about it, more of us might talk to our doctors about the strange things we’ve noticed in our own bathroom habits, and digestive disorders from Crohn’s to colitis to celiac to food intolerances to IBS, that chimerical beast—might be discovered and dealt with earlier.

Moreover, if it were taught that it’s important and okay to talk about the bathroom, more kids might grow up to be gastroenterologists or digestive science researchers, because those fields might be recognized as the incredibly intricate and fascinating areas of study they are, rather than being widely considered the least glamorous and least compelling arenas of medicine. If it were important and okay to talk about the bathroom, we might have found a cure for ulcerative colitis by now; we might have a working celiac vaccine by now; we might have banished the diagnose of IBS and replaced it with true knowledge and solutions by now. If it were important and okay to talk about the bathroom, we might even be a bit closer to making that talk truly less important by eradicating digestive dysfunctions.

Finally, if it were important and okay to talk about the bathroom, we might be able to stop losing people (including many who are, in the grand scheme of things, not much older than those kindergarteners) to suicides precipitated by the depression that attends many digestive disorders, because they might feel comfortable speaking up about it and getting help, instead of becoming more and more hopeless and more and more humiliated by their unimportant condition until life itself starts seeming unimportant, too. (And, again, because we might have more researchers turning up results that could tangibly ease their symptoms.)

In short, although I know teachers have lesson plans to stick to and criteria to meet, I can’t help but feel that an important part of any teacher’s hard day’s work done right should be to encourage students to speak up about the things that trouble or confuse them, especially those things that concern the very most basic stuff of human functioning. And yes, that includes the bathroom.

Asking these questions shouldn’t make you a pest. It’s the refusal to listen to them that’s really annoying.

Photo © daveparker | Flickr

Photo © daveparker | Flickr

All excerpts from Ramona the Pest, © Beverly Cleary 1968.

Please share your thoughts! If you have kids, do you encourage them to speak up about “uncomfortable” topics? Do you speak up about digestive issues, if you have them? Are you (or your kids) shushed for talking about the toilet? How might we go about increasing our comfort level with this topic on a societal level? And do you think we should?

P.S. I know celiac disease isn’t all digestive trouble—trust me, I know—but this isn’t really a post about celiac disease. It’s a post about the BATHROOM. Which is, to me, very important.

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