Monday, November 8, 2010

Obsession-Be-Gone - The story of one man's fight with his fight against bed bugs

Bed bugs are a problem in New York City (the NY Times ran four articles about them last month alone). So it came as no surprise when Barry started talking with me about his obsession with protecting his family from them.

He'd heard the horror stories from two close friends - about how the exterminators would come, but the bugs would stay. Of people leaving the city entirely after moving from an infested apartment, only to have the new apartment also be infested (the new landlord painted over the walls and didn't mention the issue).

Determined to avoid such a disaster in his home, in April, Barry started to insist that everyone put their bags and shoes into large plastic bins in the entry. He would also vacuum his home three times a week - not only would he vacuum behind the sofa cushions, he would unzip and vacuum the inside of them as well (just in case!). And it went on from there. All this felt like the sane thing to do in the face of a pesky danger to his son.

The problem was that the behavior was starting to feel obsessive - and ineffectual. The friends of his 7 year-old son who had been exposed to bed bugs would play in the apartment. The walls could develop a crack from where the bugs could seep in. There were too many variables. Too many possibilities that something could creep in. Even Barry's son started calling him obsessed and asked him to chill out. (His wife was lovingly accommodating, but still shook her head in wonder.)

This was the situation where Barry approached me. Between half-hearted jokes about his behavior, he mentioned that he'd like to stop. There's no point in trying to make a shift if a shift isn't desired. So I asked him directly, "Which is it? Do you want the behavior or do you want to stop?"

Had he said that he wanted to maintain the behavior, I would have gone along with it and enjoyed his company for the rest of the evening (Barry's a very funny guy). But as it was, he became somber and concerned. Barry said he really did want to change - even his 7 year-old was acting more mature and calling him out on odd behavior - but didn't know how.

I asked him:
Why do you want to stop? 
What do you get out of the behavior? 
How else can you get it? 
What's next (or even more important)?

As a result, Barry realized that he was spending more time and energy worrying about bed bugs than if he actually got them. Even though he could try to protect his son from tiny bites, there were other things that would hurt even more. And the most important lesson he could bestow at this point was that it's possible to get over an obsession and return to normal behavior.

The next day Barry and his son got rid of the bins.


Arti said...

I just read an article on how our fears grip us. I thought I’d share it with you. It’s a good read, very insightful. You can read it at

For Stress said...

I read your story and found that this is happing everywhere in now a days.
you write it very well.
Thanks for sharing