When Julia Cho brought her newborn baby home from the hospital, she assumed she'd have time to recuperate from a difficult delivery and bond with her new daughter. Instead, she came home to a nightmare.
The family had been together for three days when Julia's husband woke up with his arm covered in large, painful bug bites. That afternoon, as he was filming little Audrey with the camcorder, he caught a bug crawling across the ottoman. It was a bedbug.
"I'll never forget that moment," Julia, 32, told momlogic in a telephone interview. "Even before we knew that much information about bedbugs, we just had this sense that we were doomed."
And so began the rapid unraveling of Julia's world. When she told the building's superintendent about the problem, she learned that a neighbor in the building also had bedbugs. Soon, it became clear that the problem affected multiple units. The Chos decided to stay with Julia's parents in New Jersey and commute back to Brooklyn -- an hour-and-a-half-long trip -- to prepare the apartment for a treatment.
Treating a home for bedbugs is a grueling, expensive, and emotionally taxing process that often involves weeks of cleaning and preparation. All clothes and linens must be washed and removed from the premises; all personal possessions must be inspected and sealed in plastic bags; and all closets and drawers must be emptied. And still the bugs, which hide in mattresses, sofas, furniture, picture frames, floorboards, and moldings, can survive an exterminator's spray.
The emotional toll can be overwhelming. People who've suffered through a bedbug infestation talk of nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, paranoia, and depression.
"It makes people psycho," said Dr. Dini Miller, an associate professor of urban pest management at Virginia Tech.
Miller, who often vets phone calls from frantic bedbug victims, has heard stories of people sleeping in their bathtub to escape the bloodsucking pests. "The fact that they're literally crawling into your bed and literally sucking your blood is very intimate and freaks people out," she said.
With increased international travel and the banning of the pesticide DDT, bedbugs are back with a vengeance. Outbreaks have been reported in at least 27 states, and New York City, Honolulu, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston, and Miami have all been bitten by the bedbug, according to the Associated Press.
Actress Mary-Louise Parker rehashed her bedbug scare to David Letterman, estimating that treating all her possessions would set her back $10,000. Bedbugs, which do not carry disease, are politically indiscriminant, too. Bill Clinton's Manhattan offices were recently treated for bedbugs, as was the FOX newsroom in NYC. One FOX News staffer was so traumatized by the incident that she sued the building's landlord for causing post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I have had families who, in the course of family therapy, have been literally infested by bedbugs. This has been devastating to them, as it interfered with their ability to feel safe in their own home," said Dr. Paula Madrid, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct faculty member at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "Few things can be worse than that, regardless of their size and true threat."
When Julia and her family returned to their home after it was treated by an exterminator, they saw bugs crawling on the floor. She and her husband took turns staying up all night watching Audrey sleep, terrified that their eight-pound daughter would get bitten. "That was one of the lowest points," said Julia.
After multiple treatments and no success, the Chos decided to move. Fearing they'd take the bugs with them, they left most of their possessions behind. Whatever they couldn't store in Ziploc bags stayed in the apartment. Replacing their possessions cost the Chos about $10,000, a loss that was not covered by renters' insurance. They also lost their early months with their daughter. "As a mother, I felt completely robbed of bringing her into the home that I prepared for her," Julia said.
At this point, it appears that bedbugs are here to stay. They've made their way from luxury hotels to the homes of people without the means to adequately treat them. And they're increasingly pesticide-resistant, according to Miller of Virginia Tech. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency held a summit about bedbugs to try to find a way to deal with the problem.
"I'd like to see people take a much calmer approach to this. This is not the end of the world by a long shot," said Miller. "We're going to be looking in the future to getting used to the fact that bedbugs are around."
Five months after Audrey was born, the Chos moved into a new apartment in New Jersey and started to rebuild their lives. This month marks the one-year anniversary of their ordeal, and Julia still feels a long way from recovered. Her possessions are still in plastic bags and she often worries that her husband will bring a new bedbug home on the subway. She no longer shops at vintage stores or yard sales, and only brings used books into the house after they've been carefully inspected. "Even if it's over, there's no guarantee that you won't get them again," she said. "I can't get away from this. There's nothing that says you can't have this a few times."