Confessions of a Serial Roach Killer: On Irrational Phobias, Racism, and Black Genocide

I didn’t know what else to call this post, so forgive the title.

A Bit of Background: My Fear of Nigerian Roaches

I have a really terrible phobia of Nigerian roaches. Yes, Nigerian roaches. Have you seen them? They’re HUGE — from a meter away you can see their entire, segmented bodies, rotating heads, menacing antennae, including what they’re doing — sniffing the bare floor, eating decaying particles of food, ugh… *shudder*

I’m okay with other kinds of roaches. I’m even okay with other kinds of insects. When I lived in the U.S., on the east coast, I remember thinking that the insects there were such a joke; small, few in number, and always fleeing, they didn’t stand their ground like the ones I knew from home. But then again the coldness of winter kills most insects, so I rarely had to contend with the range (and size) of species that thrive in warmer climates. Still, I don’t think one can claim to have seen a real cockroach until they’ve come face to face with the African-sized sort that perch themselves on your fridge handle in the middle of the night, and dare you to try to get by…. but I digress.

We all know that phobias are irrational.

As a smart person who perhaps over-intellectualises almost all of my emotions so that I may better take control of them, and be proactive (vs. reactive) in my responses, whenever I encounter a big Nigerian cockroach, all that critical thinking and control goes out the window. I almost always scream, jump up and down, become really religious (“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!), and descend into a dry-heaving panic, crashing into nearly everything around me. To compose myself, I almost always go through this exact train of thought:

Sad Harmless Nigerian CockroachCalm down.
It’s just a cockroach. An insect.
It’s harmless.
I’m nearly 1000 times its size!
This is just a phobia – it is irrational.
Phobias are irrational.
(Ahhh, it’s so scary!)
Okay, stop. Just stop.
It won’t do anything. Really! Look at it!
It’s just chillin’ over there.
You can kill it.
Just kill it.
It’s just a useless cockroach.

I’m going to tell you something very embarrassing, but true.

A few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to go use the bathroom. Yawning and rubbing my eyes, I walked dazedly through the door, then caught the sight of a dark brown figure on the mirror. Squinting to bring the figure into focus, I stopped dead in my tracks; staring back at me was a big brown cockroach – the size of a USB modem, with extra-long, thin antennae flailing wildly about. I freaked out.

Screaming madly as I recoiled at the sight, I stepped back and lost my balance, falling hard unto the ceramic floor and scrambling away to safety. The commotion caused the cockroach to begin crawling frantically against the mirror glass, further freaking me out. Still unhinged and shrieking, I reached for the doorknob and pulled the door shut; I couldn’t risk the creature flying into my bedroom, you see — ’cause, yeah, Nigerian cockroaches fly. In 92 degree weather, I slept with my head buried under the covers.

The next morning, it took me about 30 minutes to muster up the courage to re-open that bathroom door. When I did finally, I discovered there was no cockroach; it had clearly slid back into its hiding place, away from the daytime light. I got ready in the bathroom mostly with my eyes shut (don’t ask how), then hurriedly fled the apartment. However, when I returned home later on that evening, and absent-mindedly walked into the bathroom, I saw the cockroach again! Startled, I ran back out, shut the door, and sat trembling on the bed. I spent the entire night dreading that the cockroach would grow tired of the bathroom and sneak into my bedroom from underneath the door. But the really sad, pathetic part was this:

I let my fear of this one cockroach chase me out of my apartment for a whole week. 

I normally wouldn’t share this much, but I need you to realise how deeply rooted my phobia is: my paranoia at running into the nightcrawler persisted — and got worse — over the course of the week. It got so bad that I resorted to using the bathroom only when I was out for the day, just so I wouldn’t need to when I got home in the evenings (when nightcrawler would be out on the prowl).

Nigerian Cockroach Takes Over HouseThe straw that broke the camel’s back was the day I forgot to pee before I got home. I’d been out at a restaurant with friends and it had slipped my mind. I’d ordered a soup for dinner, so around 10 pm, I really needed to go. But it was dark outside, the night belonged to the cockroach, not me. So rather than brave the inevitable face off in the bathroom, I held my pee… for 8 hours.

Yup. I stayed up rocking back and forth in the fetal position in my bed trying to hold it until dawn, when the ferocious bug would have retired. I got NO sleep that night and, as a result of the exhaustion and anxiety, I developed a severe headache and wheezing (from my asthma). By the time I had to get ready for work, I had no choice but to call in sick. I was so ashamed of myself. It was totally pathetic, right? But now you know how frightened I was, and how deeply-rooted my phobia is.

Despite hours of reading about how non-threatening this insect was, I couldn’t shake the fear. He had to go. It was either him — the cockroach – or me; two of us couldn’t occupy the same space. I wanted him out, period. So, the next day, I purchased some insecticide (the cruelest way to kill bugs), sprayed the bathroom, and left the apartment for the damn thing to die

Where am I going with this, you might wonder?

Honestly, I’m not sure how to articulate the feelings I experienced after coming home to open the bathroom door and realising what I had done: I’d given into my phobia and the cockroach had lost. The revelation of this – that I’d carried out the torture and murder of a Nigerian cockroach – might seem a bit dramatic; maybe it is, but I haven’t been able to shake or clearly articulate what I’ve been feeling over the outcome of the whole fiasco.

So, naturally, I wrote a poemthing: a somewhat apology or eulogy for the Nigerian cockroach. Silly (and comical) as it is, maybe after reading it, you’ll understand better understand why this insignificant moment about an insect holds some significance to me as an activist. If not, hey, you at least got to laugh at me shrieking and tripping over myself as I tried to flee a bug. As we say here, nuttin’ spoil.

In Memory of the Indigenous Cockroach, Nightwalker:

This morning, before I left, I sprayed the shit out of my bathroom so I could murder the African-sized cockroach that had been my torment for weeks.

I fled the scene, coughing as I escaped a fate I could not wait for the foul thing to meet. But over the course of the day, my conscience got the best of me.

A butterfly flew by, landed neatly on a jasmine leaf and I thought, “How pretty,”
right before I began to question what it means
to pick and choose what shade of life offends.

We play God with cans full of poison, then cry foul when they insist the wrong version of history is truth.

Whose home is this? Whose ceramic floor?
Who decided white tiles and bath towels meant foreclosure?
What is home if not the audacity to feel
safe — to roam freely in black and brown without fear
of finding yourself in the wrong neighbourhood?

Dear Nightwalker (can I call you that?),
you’re dead and gone
there’s no coming back
no resurrection from violence this absolute,
just a self-indulgent eulogy to make your dead corpse political
lest we forget that it wasn’t fear that killed you,
but my unwillingness to place your survival above it;
that this IS your house,
that this IS a murder,
that it is I who have been the intruder,
and life is unjust.

My phobia-turned-hate got the best of me,
so I sprayed my humanity away,
justified insecticide just so I could feel a little safer
from that cruel brown creature of the night whose corpse I cannot face
for fear of seeing myself.

But this is not a poem.

This is an apology, for killing you AND your wife.
I had no idea she’d be at home when I cast the first stone.
I thought you were a rogue in the night,
not a nighttime hustler
head of your own household
seeking bread crumbs for a family you’d kept out of sight.

You must know that when I returned home and saw not one,
but two overturned corpses laying side by side
I knew the war had just begun…

They say the sins of the father follow the son.
I do not wish to kill any more, so I hope to god they’re wrong.
(I know they’re not.
My time will come.)

RIP Cockroach (and Cockroach Wifey – my bad)

Cockroach Family