The Bug Phobia That Nearly Ruined My Life

by Samantha K. Smith

His hands travelled higher up my thigh. Soon, they would part my butt cheeks and have me wishing that I’d splurged for a Brazilian wax, the kind that leaves your sensitive parts numb. I wasn’t the type to shut the blinds or pull the curtains when I undressed. There was something about the idea of a voyeur that I found amusing. If a neighbor’s prying eye happened upon my bare ass, it would be within his right to stare.

But my household nude-capades hadn’t prepared me to lie naked on a table for the doctor so attractive he made any amount of eye contact challenging. His hair swooped below his kempt eyebrows, which were neatly arched above impeccable cheekbones. Men like him took care of themselves. They exuded purpose and confidence and knew what they wanted. They weren’t twenty-something writers living paycheck-to-paycheck who taught English to college students in order to support a book they couldn’t finish. Dr. Rayan made me regret the decision to step off the treadmill two miles too early the day before. As I shuffled under the paper gown that lay open across my back, I wondered if he was looking at me the way a butcher examines meat he suspects has spoiled.

Dr. Rayan snapped a small camera to his phone. He and his young, tailored pantsuit-wearing assistant were about to comb every inch of my skin with an iPhone attachment. The assistant assumed the role of the successful, put-together young woman I was not — one who ate manicured portions of fruit for lunch, flossed her porcelain teeth daily, and whose bed boasted Pottery Barn folds with the precise accent pillows and throws. I had no doubt her nether regions were hair-free.

The only pillow talk we shared was the effectiveness of bug bombing our 800 square foot studio apartment. If there were a time for Tim to change his mind about spending the rest of his days with me, this would be it.

This doctor visit was better than the alternative: four loads of wash a day, an exorbitant and growing Con Edison bill, bleach and mouthwash concoctions, the foul smelling creams to aide in killing the creatures I believed were crawling along on my body. The appointment was a follow-up to a follow-up for an issue that wasn’t resolving no matter what I tried.

“I’m not seeing anything on the feet or in between the toes,” Dr. Rayan said. I kept my face down against the examining table as I would for a full body massage. I could almost convince myself this was therapeutic if it weren’t for two people eyeing my pores at ten times their normal size. “You said you feel it on your legs, Samantha, yes?”

“Those little red spots that look like razor burn.” He moved up each calf with gloved hands. “A crawling sensation. I feel it all over.”

My fiancé, Tim, thought I was going crazy. We were still a year away from our wedding. Through our seven years of dating, I’d never made him douse his limbs in Listerine or wipe the faux leather couch with bleach water before. He was growing impatient of the shower caps full of chemicals and weary from the late, sexless nights discussing my bug eradication plots.

“I don’t have bugs on me,” he said. “And neither do you, but if it helps you sleep...” He reached out for the special sulfur soap I ordered and went to the bathroom to scrub his body in a putrid lather. The only pillow talk we shared was the effectiveness of bug bombing our 800 square foot studio apartment. If there were a time for Tim to change his mind about spending the rest of his days with me, this would be it.

My mother thought I'd lost it too. She and Tim were the only people I shared the secret with: that I felt undetectable microscopic insects on me. Not only did I feel them every waking hour, mocking me as they slowly trekked up my legs, but the red bumps were proof of them burrowing into my skin and laying their eggs to multiply. After an extensive Internet search, I knew I’d contracted scabies either on the subway or from a public restroom or by sitting on the floor of some independent bookstore. Convinced I was contagious, I feared passing them along to my students, my family, and to all my friends. I was in for an endless struggle unless Dr. Rayan gave me the latest poison to rub head to toe. Instead he gave me, yet again, another clean bill of health.

“It’s the book,” my mother said. I looked over to the stack of pages my literary agent sent me, riddled with notes. “You have to acknowledge the fact that these bugs may be in your head.” My mother was prone to long, dramatic pauses and lectures when I didn’t respond. “You’re under a lot of stress and the mind is very powerful.” She was studying psychological counseling for her Masters and was on the path of diagnosing everyone. Her opinions couldn’t be trusted; she had skin in the game.

I’d been working on a memoir for the last three years. The book I considered my life’s purpose. The book about my family that would finally explain why although no immediate family members perished in the 9/11 attacks, we were all struggling after my father’s rescue work at Ground Zero. The agent’s notes were less like notes and more like gentle reminders of how many revisions the manuscript needed. There were pages with blue lines diagonally inked across them and large sections with foreboding question marks. The word “tears” was circled in pen across the black and white pages. No tears came when I received her handwritten feedback on what I thought was my first memoir bestseller. But bugs did.

I'd foolishly thought I’d be the first to publish a book out of my MFA class. I was even more naive to think of publishing as a race — the first to the bookshelves, the better. After completing my Masters, I was introduced to a hungry literary agent working at a prominent New York City firm who read my work. When she mentioned going for a six-figure deal, I could almost see my student loan debt vanish.

The agent invited me for coffee to sign a contract at one of those fancy French bakeries with a name I could never pronounce. I bought my cup before she arrived so I could avoid the awkwardness of her footing the bill. What if she changed her mind? At the time, I was only 24 years old.

She wanted a partial manuscript out before the 10th anniversary of September 11th rolled around. There were plenty of 9/11 titles out but none that so heavily dealt with the repercussions of a rescue worker’s experience in the aftermath; none, she thought, that showed how the work entered the home and infected the family system. My memoir wasn’t finished, but that was fine because she was hoping there would be an auction. If I were published that year, I could be included on one of those “25 Writers Under 25” lists.

After she sent out my partial manuscript, five editors said they wished to see the full book when I was done writing. A renown lit mag chose to excerpt a chapter and cast me as an emerging writer for their online magazine.

“Great,” my agent said, “just take a few months and finish.” That was all there was to it. November. December. January ticked by. In February, I got her my full 325-page cash cow, mostly chapters and chunks loosely stitched together. I still had no real ending because I believed my story was still unfolding.

Then there was the phone call.

“The scenes of the skin rashes are really powerful and working well,” the agent said.

I’d written about the backs of my legs breaking out in red bumps while I was away at college. At the time, I thought I’d contracted the same rashes my father had after falling into a pit of body fluid at Ground Zero. It made more sense for me to believe the bumps were a result of the new cleaning products maintenance used on the dorm toilets, but I was convinced that those rashes were passed down to me as penance after my father’s work at the site. I didn't understand it at the time, but ignoring my stress caused it to manifest in my body; this time in rashes, later with bugs.

But then, the conversation shifted. The agent was concerned. She would not, after all, go out with my manuscript. She dosed me the hard truth: my book was not ready.

I couldn’t will myself to close my eyes and fall asleep at night. The bugs would taunt me, slowly inching through my hair, hiking across my face and along the soles of my feet. Tim slept undisturbed cocooned in blankets. I reasoned the bugs didn’t affect him. Why go for second best? It was clear I wasn’t cutting it. I was not shaping up to be a young published writer. I wasn’t a very good fiancé, and clearly, I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking care of myself.

Our fake leather couch began to peel. Large slivers of pleather fabric came loose like dead skin. I’d also spent two hours of every day that week coating my body in pesticides strong enough to kill a dog.

I was about to deliver the second full draft of my book when my agent left her agency for a new firm and told me she would not be taking me with her. The crawling sensation reemerged tenfold.

After the fifth and final appointment, Dr. Rayan was sure I didn’t have scabies, or mites, or eczema. I knew he had people with more serious skin problems to take care of and though he appreciated my copay, he was probably dying to reiterate what Tim and my mother were suggesting.

“At this point, I can refer you to a neurologist,” Dr. Rayan had said in our last appointment together. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had a therapist and she didn’t think this was bugs or nerve pain either. My book — so firmly rooted in our family story — was inextricably tied to the loss we experienced when Dad came home angry and suffering after his recovery work at Ground Zero. When I realized my book would not be published that year like I planned, it felt like I was losing him all over again.

As I made final arrangements for our wedding, I set the book down — filed the pages in a desk drawer — and closed it. The bugs always came back when I felt like a failure, when I believed I'd never get published. So I tried to use what my agent said when she found out I was engaged to keep me from tampering with my work.

“Live your life,” she said. “The work will always be there waiting for you.”

Whenever I thought the bugs were back, I repeated her words until they formed a mantra, until I began to believe them. It was a slow, arduous process to shed my compulsion to research homemade bug remedies. As the wedding grew closer, I spent evenings at the gym, collapsing in bed too exhausted to inspect the sheets for mites.

I married my best friend on a windy, Memorial Day weekend and we honeymooned in Belize. Though there were bugs everywhere, especially in the tree house we stayed in for three nights in the jungle, (the owner bragging about the poisonous spiders on display in jars in the common area), I did not think of them. I drank coco-locos from coconuts, I snorkeled in the second largest barrier reef in the world, and I hiked through a cave used for ancient ceremonious rituals. While standing barefoot surrounded by thousand-year-old clay pots, a young tour guide told us the ancient Maya believed in the spirituality of their tools. In order to respect the role the pot served them, they'd carve a small opening, allowing its soul to escape.

When my husband and I got back to our little corner of the city, I was grateful to come home to the book I hadn't sold yet. I sat at the desk, and opened the drawer ready to edit again: combing over word choices, cutting weak chapters, tightening each line.

The bugs were my fear — the fear of never publishing, the fear that what my father went through wouldn't matter. In the end, the only way to rid myself of it was to keep writing. As I typed, there wasn’t a bug to be found.

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