Return to safety

In August, my 15-year-old dog became infested with biting bugs that were neither ticks nor fleas. We had just returned from a trip that included a jet ride from Anchorage to Juneau, and I was sure Talus had picked up something devastating in doggie cargo.

The bugs were a quarter-of-an-inch long, with antennae and spindly legs. I pulled twelve off of him in quick succession, and they squished red with his blood. Talus had also spent a six-hour ferry ride in my car, and the kids and I suffered bites from an earlier life stage if we drove anywhere.

The vet set me up with a flea and tick medication but it didn’t work. Meanwhile, the bugs were multiplying. They covered my dog, the porch, and the tall plants around the house. We sent pictures to vets around the state; no one could identify them. I googled and convinced myself that they were an invasive species carrying a deadly, degenerative neurological disease.

“If you find one,” the website said, “don’t touch it.” I had already squished a hundred of them between my thumb and forefinger.

*

I have been sensitive to stress and anxiety lately. When school got out in May I took on all three of my kids full-time, and it’s more than a full-time job for one person. The brothers are into everything, and Avery only moves at one speed. Routines get us through the day and out the door, and various systems help me procure groceries, complete chores, prepare dinner, and get everyone to bed. But even the best day takes everything I have.

When things go wrong, I see that I normally function very close to my ceiling. During periods of overwhelm, I struggle with a permeating fear that I can not keep all of my children safe at the same time.

To make matters worse, the weather forecast called for an atmospheric river. I had no desire to repeat December’s deluge, when 48-hours of rain flooded our town and left me and the kids without power for 36-hours.

Talus was quarantined to the outdoors, but on one very rainy night (before googling) he slept in the Arctic entryway. A few days later, I found tiny bugs around the baseboard of my home. A larger life stage climbed the back of the house in droves. The siding, it seemed, provided an optimal environment for molting into their final, winged stage.

Ten years ago, I escaped to this one-horse town. I wanted meaningful work or no work, and I dreamed of the creative life. I needed a quiet, low-stress place close to nature to support my mental health. I needed to live low on the hog and be time rich so I could write away the days and spend evenings singing at the open mic. In retrospect, I was also drawn here by the uncompromised feeling of physical safety.

For me, this is the safest place in the world. Not once have I gotten up in the middle of the night to lock the front door; not even when my husband is away. Threat had to travel 1000-miles outside of its natural range to find me; and take on a form no lock can keep out.

When the bugs moved in, I felt an impulse to jump on the jet and take my kids back to Anchorage. Hard times, for me, have mostly come with a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. Being well-supported by parents, friends, and a wide circle of extended family has led me to trust well in the Universe’s intentions; but I’ve struggled to trust my own ability to work through daunting tasks. Running away from problems has always seemed like a great option. Let someone else be the hero.

But what of my home? My dog? The desire to flee and return only when the monsters are gone comes from a worn out and child-like place within my psyche. With practice, I recognize where thoughts come from, and choose to act only on those that align with my most whole-hearted values.

The right thing was to stay; but I needed help. A friend dropped what she was doing to hang out with my kids while I’ve vacuumed Talus, the baseboards, and the outside of the house. I taped the Arctic entry off like a crime scene.

That night, lying in bed, I gathered my courage and sank deep in to feel the fear permeating my body. My throat felt dark, heavy, and inflexible; like it was encased in rock. I could barely breathe. Every half-breath built upon the layers; laying more rock to crush my heart and churn in my stomach.

For every constricting thought, there is an expansive antidote. I needed water – both gentle enough to welcome in and powerful enough to move mountains. I imagined myself lying in a small but swift stream. It flowed clean and clear – over, around, and through me – and lapped at the terror until, slowly, it gave way. The water drew that energy out of me and left spaciousness in its place. The water slowed and pooled, leaving my body calm and floating freely.

*

I asked my husband to come home, but he was looking at a short weather window and a concrete pour scheduled for the next day. We brainstormed solutions. In the morning, I called my mom.

She listened, despite pre-coffee haze, as I told of my home infested with potentially deadly insects; that they were eating from my dog as if he were an all-you-and-your-offspring-can-eat-buffet, and I didn’t know how to get rid of them except to put him down. I told her of an atmospheric river on its way; that I was afraid. She threw work gloves, rain gear, and insecticides into a suitcase and was on the 11 o’clock flight.

On day 1 we scrubbed somberly and bug-bombed the car. I vacuumed the siding again and sprinkled diatomaceous earth around the perimeter of the house. I changed sheets and hauled clutter to the garage. The atmospheric river didn’t materialize but it was rainy nonetheless. I arranged another place for us to stay for a few days starting the following Saturday.

That night, I held my baby boys in my arms as I slept. Grandma slept with Avery; her pants tucked into her socks, sweatshirt tucked into pants, and hood drawstring synched tight. Only the smallest possible section of her face was allowed to peep through. We protected what we could.

On day 2, results came back from the state entomologist, plus a friend with a microscope, and a bug expert in Ohio. The unanimous verdict: Talus was covered in conifer aphids.

Veterinarians hadn’t recognized the bugs, not because they were from outside of our geographical range, but because aphids don’t affect animals. They weren’t eating my dog; he had simply picked them up while wandering through the tall grass.Talus did have fleas; or he had until the medication kicked in. So there were fleas in my car but that was it.

Scooby-doo ending: The man-eating insects were actually normal bugs. Conifer aphids were shockingly unfamiliar to me considering that they live in my usual environment; much less so than the regular garden variety. Maybe because they live high up in trees? It was a generally buggy summer, and they must have been unusually numerous. For better or worse, I know a lot about them now.

Even after the benign end to my B-string horror movie, it took some time to calm down. The threat wasn’t real but the fear was. “Pretty soon,” I told a friend, “I plan to be laughing.”

*

What did I get out of this experience? Quite a bit, actually. Even as it was unnecessary, I’m proud of my perseverance and bug mitigation. I feel pretty cool for how I handled it. Also, during the high stress of summer I wanted to be somewhere else than with my children at all times. But, after 48-hours of living with an imagined threat to their lives, I don’t feel that way anymore. I love being with my babies.

Did I clean? Joyfully. Mom slave feelings were temporarily suspended. I washed every cabinet inside and out. I scrubbed play dough and mac & cheese out of chair cushions. I decluttered and purged. I waged an all-out war on the dust mites. I worked like I might never stop.

At the end of the day, I sat down with my family to a regular-kind hectic meal. It had been a while since I thanked the stars for everything I have. I looked around at my clean home and breathed in a bellyful of gratitude for my mom, my kids, my dog, my health, and the return of safety.

***