Joel Stein: What's So Bad About Bedbugs?

My wife's infectious bedbug paranoia gives a whole new meaning to homeland security

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Photo-Illustration by John Ueland for TIME

My lovely wife Cassandra Made me strip naked as soon as I walked in the door upon returning from my last business trip, and it was not to have sex. It was to wash my clothes to rid them of any possible bedbugs. This, I thought, was proof that the bedbugs had won. And that I needed to start working out more.

We were once a nation deathly afraid of statistically improbable but powerful things: witches, communism, Mexicans taking our jobs. Now we are freaked out about bedbugs, 4-mm-long insects that previous generations made up cute rhymes about. In August, 20% of Americans said they changed their plans to go to a public place for fear of bedbug infestations, even though only 9% knew someone—themselves included—who had been infested. And though there are no statistics on this yet, from what I gather on the Internet, it sure seems more Americans are having hotel sex standing up.

Cassandra has no reason to think we are in danger of harboring bedbugs. But in addition to the forced showers after traveling, she once made us switch hotel rooms after finding a mosquito bite on her leg one morning. We have little plastic plates of talcum powder under the feet of our bed, and we put every vaguely bug-shaped piece of lint we find into a plastic container that we will show to the first unlucky person we meet at a party who makes the mistake of telling us he's an entomologist. We've moved the bed away from the wall in a manner that makes reading significantly more dangerous than getting bitten by a bedbug. And Cassandra has been trying to find a way to trick my father and his wife—who are not only traveling from New York City, the international capital of bedbugs, but also staying at two hotels before visiting us—into being hosed down with boiling water before entering our home. When I got a disturbing rash recently, she said, "I hope to God you have shingles."

The worst thing about bedbug hysteria is that it spreads as quickly as bedbugs themselves. The night after we switched hotel rooms, I barely slept, scratching phantom itches every few minutes. When Cassandra explained the seriousness of the bedbug problem to my mom, who does not worry about much—like whether there is a three-hour time difference before she calls me at 6 a.m. on the West Coast—the conversation ended with my mother saying, "What is the government doing about this?" This column is taking me two times longer to write than usual because I cannot stop scratching.

Bedbugs aren't harmful. Unlike mosquitoes, rodents and, as we've learned, 1-year-olds, they don't carry disease. When I mentioned this to Cassandra, she looked at me with what I imagine is the cold, hard stare of a bedbug about to reproduce through traumatic insemination. "They're like pure evil," she said. "They're impossible to kill. I used to worry, living in Southern California, that there would be a tarantula or a rattlesnake in our house. Now I'm like, big deal—you catch it and you throw it outside." I started to try to talk sense into her, but Cassandra said, "Speaking of bedbugs, maybe we should check the traps in the guest room."

Bedbugs scare us so much because, unlike mosquitoes, chiggers, fleas, lice, ticks—I'll stop now—they hide in your house. And we believe our homes are fortresses, even though anyone who has ever patched their floors with 2-by-4s knows that the difference between inside and outside is largely semantic. Despite all our technology, we are still at the whim of nature. We still get bedbugs, only now we can tweet about them.

It's a special weakness of our rich country to believe that we can barricade ourselves into safety—that if we just increase airport security, extremists can't attack us; that gated communities keep predators away from our kids; that with constant vigilance, we can keep bedbugs out. When I was 9, I saw a segment of That's Incredible! about how mites live in our eyebrows and how hot showers only cause them to reproduce more. And while I've spent 30 years thinking about eyebrow mites whenever I turn up the heat in the shower, what I should really be upset about is that my parents let me watch crap like That's Incredible! But that episode did teach me that hypervigilance is weakness. That the greatest control comes from deciding not to control. And that even Fran Tarkenton had really lame career options after retiring from professional sports.

So we can live in fear of bedbugs and not travel, go to our friends' parties or have visitors stay over. All the things that Cassandra hates to do anyway. I think I may have married a genius.

This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2010 issue of TIME.