Rotkäppchen and the Dark Wood–Martha Johnson


Like a thief in the night benzodiazepines stole my health. To mask the stresses of child welfare work, to ease the grief of knowing there are humans who intentionally steal innocence from the vulnerable, I took medication I believed safe. I was oblivious to the injury it was causing my central nervous system and ignorant of the toxic etiology of the pervasive, bizarre symptoms that forced retirement.

On the lowest footpath, I wandered deeper into a dark world.

All of my life dolls have meant more to me than others know or understand. Dolls were always my friends, real friends. They saved me more than once.

Before I became fully aware of my injury, I sensed the dolls were trying to warn me. They looked wary; they looked concerned. I was in danger. Then my health crashed like falling dominoes.

In a delusional state, like a mortally wounded warrior, I cried out for my mother in the diminutive, “mutti”, even though she had been gone for twenty years. In delirium, I raved in public. I longed to return to a home that existed in dreams.

I sought medical help from many providers. When they did take the time to listen, they did not believe me, or they ordered inappropriate tests. I was alone.

Terror escalated. A knock on my front door caused my heart to race. Agoraphobia seized my mind. Passing through my front gate was impossible, though I had opened and closed it hundreds of times before without a second thought. Despair owned me. In my dreary nightmares, I was unloved. My dream family turned away though I called them out by name. I clutched a doll to help me make it through the night.

Ambient sound was unbearable. I went deaf in my right ear. Rectilinear forms undulated, swelled, and contracted. Double vision arrived without warning. I wore sunglasses indoors to block the cascade of stars that covered everything. Hallucinated boxelder bugs crawled on my arm; an almost mouse scampered across the floor.

A deathly pallor embraced my face. My feet went numb with the singular sensation of electric shock at each painful step. Spatial relationships were incomprehensible. My gait was unstable. There were episodes of vertigo and I fell often. Cement legs ached. I shuffled when I walked. My jaw ached. Biceps contracted. Hands and arms twisted and curled against my chest. Fingers twitched. Lower back muscles cramped and impaired standing.

Though I had no internal temperature gauge, under heaps of blankets, I shivered all night. At times I was unbearably hot. Paresthesia hurt.

Blood pressure spiked to stroke levels. Heart rhythms were disrupted. I was rushed to the ER three times; admitted to cardiac ICU twice. Diagnoses were obscure; no structural anomalies were found. A deregulated autonomic nervous system from the iatrogenic injury was not considered.

What felt like jolts of electricity crashed through my brain and stopped thoughts dead in their tracks often accompanied by the death metal tune, You Suffer, a cacophony of sound from no external source.

Simple math skills evaporated. Texts blurred or jumped around the page and appeared illogically strung together as though written in Wonderland. Normally graceful cursive became illegible. Daily tasks were impossible. I was weak as a baby bird. Old friends pitied me. And then, believing I had descended irretrievably into madness, they all disappeared.

All joy vanished and I longed to be under the ground next to my sister. Suicide seemed reasonable. I had lost hope.

The dolls bore witness to everything. They were with me as they always had been from my beginning. They never gave up. They encouraged me to proceed in seeking the source that was threatening me and I finally found it. With the two strongest warriors, Time and Patience, I gradually eliminated the toxin and recovered what had been stolen from me. During the nearly three years it took for the neuroreceptors to regenerate and stabilize, the dolls stood by until I emerged from the darkness and they could returned to their primary assigned roles as friends and sentries.

Psychologists might diagnose, in a medication-induced dissociation psychosis, I had attributed to my dolls a life-long desperation to be cared for, a reality not yet surfaced into my conscious mind. And they might be right. Might be.

“Your house is on fire; everyone is safe. You get to take one thing with you before you run to safety. What do you choose?”

Rotkäppchen. She also came upon herself in a Dark Wood with the path forward uncertain and obscure. She persevered. She, too, survived. The gold bracelets, the diamond earrings, the pearl necklace, the gold ring Holly made in memory of my sister, mom’s sterling flatware, are all left behind.

None of those things matter.


Martha Johnson has lived in Oregon since 1972, more than forty years on the coast. She has an MFA in painting and drawing from Portland State. She began writing in 2012. Poems can be found in “Words Have Wings” and other publications.