Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
“You can kill the bugs in people’s beds, but you can’t kill the bugs in people’s heads,” says bedbug victim and buster Sandy Rubenstein.
By contributor
updated 10/7/2011 8:13:00 AM ET 2011-10-07T12:13:00

Having a case of bedbugs can cause people to feel so desperate they make irrational decisions that can cost them more than just money.

Sandy Rubenstein, a bedbug buster in Yarmouth Port, Mass., says she’s seen a woman washing herself with an ointment intended for horses, people sleeping in mosquito nets, and wrapping their beds in plastic and double-sided tape. She watched as folks threw out everything they owned and tried using hamsters as deterrents, hoping the bugs would bite the rodents instead of them.

When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s hard to imagine why people would spray themselves with poisonous pesticides. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an elderly woman in North Carolina died after using large amounts of pesticides and coating her body with bug spray and flea powder. More than 100 people have made themselves sick using pesticides to kill bedbugs. Some people have been so anxious to get rid of bedbugs, they burned their houses down. It may take weeks or months to get rid of the pestilence, but victims say the psychological effects of the ordeal can last a lifetime.

“You can kill the bugs in people’s beds, but you can’t kill the bugs in people’s heads,” says Rubenstein, who started the company PureHeat after spending 18 months (and $40,000)battling between 2007 and 2008. “It’s a paranoia that stays for life. You never get over having bedbugs.”

Annie Lynsen of Silver Spring, Md., has a current case of bedbugs in her apartment, and she’s doing her best to cope. She discovered the bedbugs after spending weeks thinking she and her husband were being bitten by mosquitos. Then, in mid-September, she saw a bedbug crawling up the mattress.

Image: Sandy Rubenstein
Image courtesy Sandy Rubenstein
Sandy Rubenstein of Cape Cod, Mass. spent $40,000 trying to get rid of her bedbugs and is still haunted by them.

The apartment is in disarray while the couple waits for the exterminator to come every two weeks. They’ve laundered and bagged their clothes, pulled furniture two feet from walls and live in chaos. They can’t visit friends, can’t have guests, and feel nervous they’ll miss celebrating Thanksgiving with relatives.

“I know there are bedbugs in my bed, and I have to sleep there anyway because I don’t want to spread them elsewhere. That’s really the horrifying part,” says the 31-year-old marketer. “We have sleepless nights and nightmares. I feel like this is the night something is going to come out and bite me and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me in the next eight hours.”

Lynsen thought she did everything possible to avoid bedbugs, including encasing the mattress in a bedbug-proof cover, and keeping her luggage off the floor in hotel rooms while traveling this summer. But she acknowledges she forgot about the box spring, where she found an infestation.

“We’re better now than when we first discovered them,” she says. “We couldn’t shake the feeling of being unclean and having this idea of things under the bed trying to get us. Now, I’m stronger because I know something is being done.”

Feelings of being out of control are what makes people suffer most, says Myrtle Means, a clinical psychologist with offices in the Detroit area.

“That causes the greatest distress,” she says. “Don’t focus on the what ifs, focus on what is. ‘I have bedbugs. What do I do to get rid of bedbugs? I can call an exterminator.’ You begin to feel helpless and hopeless and like the situation is unmanageable. Bedbugs are manageable.”

After she instructs clients to call an exterminator, she suggest they identify what is causing the greatest amounts of stress and anxiety such as not having the money to handle the situation, possibly having to move or throwing away their belongings. She also suggests reading the book, “Anxiety, Phobias and Panic,” and trying relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and imagery, imaging themselves in a calming place such as on a beach or lying in a hammock.

Although she sees bedbugs daily, Rubenstein manages her own paranoia by being extra cautious. She tosses her clothes in the dryer when arriving home, pulls back the sheets and headboards in hotel rooms, and never puts her luggage on the floor. She warns people to stop bringing home used furniture unless it’s from a reputable dealer and certainly avoid taking items from a roadside. Check on elderly friends and relatives, who may be unaware of bedbugs. Taking precautions, she says, are much better than dealing with bedbugs.

“Your bed is your sanctuary; it’s where you go to relax,” she says. “When you get them, you think they are crawling on you all the time. You wonder where they are hiding and you can’t relax. It makes people suffer on their jobs and in their personal lives.”

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