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Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Psychological Trauma Caused By Bedbugs And Cooties

A friend of mine relates the story of a family vacation to Vermont in early October. It was a spectacular New England Fall, the trees got just enough moisture or were starved of it – whichever produces the occasional kaleidoscope of brilliant colors – and the family was happy to be settled in to their chalet near Brattleboro.

My friend noticed that his daughter was always scratching her head, so vigorously at times that she looked like a dog banging away at fleas.  After a few days of this, my friend had a look.  Crawling around his daughter’s scalp were hundreds of cooties – head lice. Like roaches on a kitchen floor when the light is turned on, the cooties scurried for cover when Bill parted her hair for a look. “Cooties”, he said out loud, never imagining that a child of his could possibly have what in his day only Polish immigrants, Puerto Ricans, and hillbilly tobacco pickers who had come to Connecticut for seasonal work.

“Cooties”, he said again, this time to his wife. “Where on earth could she have gotten them?”, thinking of the public school in Washington that they had chosen over a number of excellent private schools for reasons of ‘commitment’.  Bill and Mary Parsons knew that they would be sending their children to St. Albans or Sidwell Friends before long, but felt it was important for them to be exposed to “all kinds’, i.e. the classic public elementary school.  Although Jeffries was a neighborhood school, it took what were called ‘out-of-bounds’ students, those who had applied for admission from failing or badly-performing schools in other parts of the District. “With all due respect”, he said to his wife, “the cooties had to come from Anacostia”.

He was probably right; but since the cootie epidemic was now so universal, there was no way of finding out.  Moreover, the thousands of parents with lice-infested children cared less about the epidemiology of the infestation and much more with stopping it.

Easier said than done. Over-the-counter remedies did not work, said Bill’s pharmacist.  Washington cooties had become resistant to all but the strongest pesticides which were available in limited supply and available only with a doctor’s prescription. “Basically it’s what farmers spray on their crops to get rid of boll weevils, corn borers, army worms, aphids, and sap beetles. Nasty stuff, but it works.”

Bill and Mary decided to work up the chain of simple and organic remedies before resorting to agricultural chemicals.  They tried regular baby shampoos, organic shampoos made out of ginseng root and sage, a new formulation of laundry soap and dishwashing liquid, and a mild mixture of Deet and almond oil.  Nothing worked.  In fact the cooties seemed to be multiplying. The Parsons had been warned that DC cooties had become so adaptable that they actually fed off of the very substances used to kill them.

Their family physician was initially quite adamant about recommending a commercial pesticide originally designed for agriculture use but found remarkably successful with head lice.  “I cannot prescribe it, and I suggest it only in the direst cases.”

“And they are….?” asked Bill, by now at the end of his patience with his daughter’s scratching and misery, and felt that if anybody’s was a dire case, his was. After much discussion and pleading, the pediatrician relented.  “I warn you, follow the directions to the letter; and remember I take no responsibility if you use it.  This conversation never happened”. 

However, pitying the Parsons and the hundreds of other desperate families who had sought his advice, he scribbled a name on a piece of paper.  The community of head lice sufferers was so extensive that Bill had no trouble finding the product. It meant a long drive out to Poolesville where the farms that supplied farmers’ markets and truck stands are located; and required paying a hefty ‘surplus’ to accommodate the non-agricultural demand; but it had to be done. 

The chemical had to be applied quickly but thoroughly to the scalp, and left on for three minutes ‘and no more!’, then rinsed with copious amounts of water for ten. Amanda, Bill’s daughter, was an extremely sensitive girl, and she picked up on the anxiety of her parents who were indeed worried that they would be damaging her DNA, consigning her to stillbirths, deformed fetuses, and retarded children.  Not to mention the immediate damage to hair follicles, scalp, and God forbid, eyes.

Nevertheless, they could not let the poor girl suffer, so placed her naked in the bathtub, and prepared the solution.  Their masks and rubber gloves would have scared any child let alone the preternaturally attuned Amanda who screamed, thrashed, and howled so much that they could only manage a half dose, if at that.  They repeated the operation the next day with the same result – a volcanic temper tantrum, really remarkable in its ferocity, and one-quarter dose.

Finally Mary looked at her daughter and said, “Look, Amanda.  If you don’t let us do this, we are going to cut your hair off down to he scalp. You will be as bald as a cue ball, balder even than Uncle Ramesh.”

Amanda, even at five years old was very proud of her thick brown, long hair, and the thought of having any of it cut off, let alone mowed down to the roots, was terrifying.

Unfortunately Ortho-X for all its billing had no effect. DC cooties had in a few short generations acquired an immunity to even this, the most potent of lice remedies.

The final solution was simple.  The Salvadoran maid said that she would take care of the problem.  She sat Amanda down under the apple tree in the back yard, and like tens of millions of Third World mothers before her and billions of monkeys before that, began to groom her.

Strand by strand, Julia stripped the nits from each strand of Amanda’s hair.  The process was long and tedious, but the little girl loved her maid and knew also that this was her last chance of saving her hair.

Bill Parsons never quite got over the sense of social stigma resulting from his cootie infestation.  His mother, a harsh but not atypical critic of other ‘nationalities’ and ethnic minorities, frequently banged on about the filthy habits of Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Poles. Cooties, crabs, and roaches were all due to them. She told the story of a woman on Broad Street who one day noticed a trickle of blood coming down her forehead, and when her husband went to look, it was from a nest of roaches gnawing on her scalp.

“It is my mother’s fault I freaked out”, said Bill to his wife.

Bill Parson’s experience is apparently nothing compared to those millions of people who are totally freaked out about bedbugs.  As Rose Eveleth reports in the Atlantic (10.16.14):

Research is starting to show that bed bug infections can leave people with anxiety, depression, and paranoia. And that’s normal. In fact, it would be weird for you not to be freaked out, says St├ęphane Perron, a doctor and researcher.

In a recent study Perron tested individuals in apartments with and without bedbugs, and not surprisingly found:

When he compared the psychological results between those two samples—a method that helps to control for factors that impact mental health like socioeconomic status—he found that tenants with bed bugs were far more likely to report anxiety and sleep disturbances than those without.

Now these results may seem obvious and another waste of taxpayer money to prove the obvious; but Perron might be on to something. One of the most common symptoms of advanced mental illness and/or methamphetamine addiction is the sensation of bugs crawling all over one’s skin.  Similarly, guests who on a warm summer evening are told that there are no mosquitos in the garden, slap and scratch throughout cocktails at what are commonly known in the psychiatric profession as ‘phantom mosquitos’. 

So it is not hard to imagine that the residents of 9J, bit remorselessly by bedbugs in the mattress, rugs, divan, comforter, and bureau drawers are bound to be jumpy, sleepless, and a bit off.  Not surprisingly other researchers have found that weeks after apartments have been fumigated and certified free of bedbugs, residents are still scratching away just as frequently and hard as they had during the infestation.  This phenomenon is so common that Eveleth cites the warning provided by most exterminators:

NOTE: Bed bug infestations are very traumatizing and it may take time to get over what you have experienced. There have been many cases where people feel they are still being bitten, even though the bed bugs have been eradicated from the home. Before you contact our office due to bites, please ensure that you are actually being bitten and that you do not have a rash or scratches from something else.

Eveleth is quite honest and forthcoming about her paranoia which she says is not uncommon:

There are a lot of reasons the tiny insects incite such insanity. Bed bugs strike you where you’re most vulnerable. Sleeping becomes impossible. Every tiny movement, every air molecule that touches your skin in just the wrong way, becomes a bug. I pecked out most of this post on my iPhone during a sleepless night. Thankfully my boyfriend is a heavy sleeper, and doesn't notice when every half-hour throughout the night I leap out of bed, grab my headlamp, and root around under the covers searching for the insect I was so sure I felt.

Those bedbug paranoiacs who are closest to suicide are those who live in gated communities and hermetically-sealed homes. They have engineered their living arrangements to keep out bugs, riff-raff, and microbes. Just the thought of bedbugs – or cooties for that matter – is enough to provoke a panic attack; and the arrival of the real thing is as psychologically disruptive as drug-resistant schizophrenia.

It will be no surprise to find hundreds of bedbug survivor groups on the Internet. Members are those crippled with the panic and fear of being invaded by insects; those who have bedbugs and are hysterical with anxiety; and those who simply can’t shake the thought that they are still in the nooks and crannies of the living room and in the shag carpet.

This is all a lot of flapdoodle over nothing.  Insects bite, and even after they are gone, phantom insects will continue to torment.  In economic terms, there are two costs to the transaction of exterminating bugs – the actual cost of removing the pests (and that can be considerable given the resiliency and reproductive ingenuity of most species) and the psychological cost of living with imaginary insects for a short period of time.  Both costs are necessary and tolerable.  All the rest is whining – an inability to accept that the world is not perfect.

We should all have a lot of tolerance and sympathy for those people who are legitimately deranged, whose wiring has gone bad and whose biochemistry has gone seriously out of whack.  We should commiserate with the depressed, the morose, the neurotically obsessive, and the compulsive. If we are to believe current medical opinion, they can’t help it.  Those with bedbug phobia, however, should not clog up the waiting rooms of The Washington Psychiatric Clinic.





  1. Those horrible little creature! I'm really scared of them! I use different homemade cleaners to prevent their appearance! I'll definitely use a professional help if I see even one of them!!

  2. Do they bite or scratch? I get an itch then a slight swelling with a center dot, resembling a bite. They last for about 5 days, and then disappear. I was told that they do not bite but it looks and feels like a bite.

  3. Carpet beetles not only cause serious damages to household supplies, but are serious horticultural pests too. So, act early with effective pest control methods so that you can save your garden plants, and more importantly, your clothes and carpets.


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