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Make sense of madness

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A kind Jewish girl from the suburbs recounts the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and the resilience of someone who refuses to be broken.

The day before the SATs, Miranda Portnoy and her friend found themselves stranded with no return home. Miranda called her mother; she was furious and refused to pick them up.

After a two-hour walk, Miranda returned home, exhausted and worried about the big day. At first, she couldn’t open her bedroom door. When she forced it open, she saw that its drawers had been knocked over, shelves emptied, posters ripped from the walls, books, papers, records – all her belongings piled on the floor.

In his revealing memoirs, Making Sense of Madness, A Jewish Journey, Miranda Portnoy (a pseudonym) relives the abuse of a narcissist with borderline personality disorder. Like the time her mother chased her with a steak knife, or launched into a swearing tirade when young Miranda wouldn’t memorize an anatomy book from medical school.

Yet hours after a savage physical attack, her mother lifted and cradled her in her arms, professing her love. Such is the abuse of a frontier; leaving the child completely confused.

At 16, Miranda left home for good. But the abuse had taken its toll.

When she was young, Miranda and her father formed an alliance against her mother, until he left his wife, Miranda, and his brother. Miranda’s brother suffered from clinical depression as a young adult. Years later, he was hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown which permanently affected his mental health.

flee the asylum

Early on, Miranda decided that she would look nothing like her mother. She chose softness instead, stood up for bullied or marginalized girls, backed down from her mother’s cult of money, and became a feminist-socialist-Zionist fighting for social justice.

When offered to spend her final year of high school in an Israeli kibbutz, Miranda jumped at the chance to “escape what would have become my asylum.”

At 16, Miranda left home for good.

But the abuse had taken its toll. Miranda suffered from insomnia all her life, performed poorly in school, and was terrified of criticism from her teachers. She felt “defective and doomed”.

The only redeeming person in Miranda’s family was her Russian-born paternal grandfather, “Pop-Pop” Abraham Portnoy. While in college, Miranda visited him regularly and cared for him when he fell ill. Although he passed away shortly after Miranda grew closer to him, the romantic relationship was key to the start of his recovery.

As an undergraduate student at the Ivy-League “Latham University” (a pseudonym of a Boston institution), Miranda struggled to complete her homework. She suffered from performance anxiety. While her friends had gone on to higher education, Miranda was still unable to complete her bachelor’s degree.

It all came to a head the semester when Miranda had four complex final papers to complete at once – the term ended with four incomplete papers.

At 32, Miranda was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. She also suffered from chronic subclinical depression, anxiety, and feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

With the help of cognitive therapists and appropriate medication, Miranda began to understand her unhealthy behaviors. She implemented new strategies. She even became a speaker for an organization representing the needs of people with learning disabilities.

But there was still a long way to go.

seek refuge

Miranda spent three and a half years in a relationship with a man who was just as narcissistic as her mother. “Obviously,” writes Miranda, “I’ve been through life with a deformed Fisher Price shape sorter, determined to grant permission to the romantic partner who would hurt me just like my parents did.”

I walked through life with a deformed Fisher Price shape sorter, determined to grant permission to the romantic partner who would hurt me just like my parents did.

When she finally ended the relationship, she was truly alone. Without money, without a degree and without a boyfriend or family, she contacted the director of the Latham Women’s Center, who promised her money, therapeutic help, medical support and more.

But the possibility of support in the near future was not enough to calm Miranda.

She admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital.

Miranda spent two grueling weeks in the Refuge Unit, a psychological boot camp for survivors of childhood trauma. She felt a mixture of shame and relief upon learning that her behavior as an abuse survivor was common. The different types of therapy forced Miranda to feel the anger and sadness she had suppressed for thirty years.

She also experienced, for the first time, the feeling of belonging to this club – of survivors.

Treason

Miranda left Refuge with a new quest for survival. She wanted nothing more than to graduate.

Then she was faced with another blow; all the support she relied on from the Women’s Center was taken away from her. In fact, the director, her therapist and others at Latham rejected her and were suspicious of her hospitalization.

This betrayal led to increased emotional pain as well as physical symptoms, with Miranda suffering for weeks from debilitating fever and flu and holed up alone in her apartment.

In this state of despair, Miranda began to connect with God. She slowly began to explore Judaism, take classes in mysticism, and accept Shabbat invitations to the Boston Chabad House. She was impressed by the healthy, functioning families she saw in the Jewish community and the warmth with which they welcomed her.

After 18 years in Latham, a few courses away from getting her baccalaureate, Miranda has reached a certain level of comfort. Although the university ombudsman dismissed her claims against the director of the Women’s Center, the director of the College of Liberal Arts and his committee heard Miranda with compassion and respect.

A new family

This chapter of her life closed, Miranda returned to Israel, where she had prospered so much during her year of absence. She enrolled in a seminary for new religious. There she formed healthy relationships with many teachers and rabbis who guided her as she grew in observance and sought marriage.

Today, Miranda is a wife, mother of thriving children and member of a strong Jewish community.

When Miranda was 36, she met Michael, a 45-year-old religious man. Their dating was fraught with a lot of tenderness and joy, and a few bumps along the way, as the two clung to deep fears of inadequacy. The two got engaged. Miranda writes that Michael “turned out to be a wonderful natural husband.” Since then, they have lived in Israel.

More than 20 years later, Miranda is now a wife, mother of thriving children, and member of a loving new family – one of a strong Jewish community. She shares her story of a life full of hardships – hardships that could easily have broken her, but instead gave meaning to the madness of her life.

To learn more about Miranda’s story, visit https://mirandaportnoy.com/. To purchase the book, go to https://www.amazon.com/Making-Meaning-Out-Madness-Journey/dp/1647188806/friendsofaishhat

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