Sunday, September 11, 2022

REVIEW: A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad's an Alcoholic (nonfiction manga) story and art by Mariko Kikuchi

Content warnings for alcoholism, abusive relationships, suicide.

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad's an Alcoholic is Mariko Kikuchi's manga memoir of growing up with an alcoholic father and eventually watching him die of cancer. Her mom was in a cult and basically just enabled her husband's alcoholism until she eventually committed suicide. 

For a short while after her mother's death, her father seemed to improve - he came home sober more often. When Mariko occasionally got frustrated with him, she repressed her feelings, telling herself that she could put up with anything as long as he stayed sober. However, even that didn't last. As she entered high school, Mariko realized that her friends thought her dad was funny, so she tried coping by turning him into a joke. It was something she continued to make use of when she made her debut as a manga artist.

Her dad only turned physically abusive towards her once. However, she spent several years in a relationship with a needy functioning alcoholic who did abuse her. If it reassures potential readers of this manga, yes, she did eventually dump him, and although it was scary for her, it sounded like it went relatively okay.

Mariko's emotions were a mess in this. She struggled with guilt over the period of time when her dad was dying of cancer and she couldn't bring herself to care. She struggled with feeling like she wasn't a "good daughter" because she didn't care about him enough when he was around, and it wrecked her sleep and emotional well-being after he died. She wondered whether there was a way she could have gotten him to stop drinking before he was diagnosed with cancer, maybe buying him a few more years. She hated her dad, and somehow missed him (or an idealized version of him) at the same time. She was also so emotionally closed off that it was hard for her to talk about it with others.

Man, this was a rough read, and it reminded me that real life doesn't necessarily have the flow and eventual satisfying resolution that fiction can have. Mariko's dad quit drinking after he started treatment for cancer, but it didn't solve the problems in their relationship, and it didn't stop him from complicating her life as she tried to clean up the results of his bad decisions. The best she was able to manage was to find some kind of peace with her complicated feelings about him. It sounded like she was also working to open up to people a little more, and she ended up with a guy who wasn't an abusive jerk.

There were a bunch of things I wish Mariko had spent more time writing about. Her sister, for example, had completely different coping mechanisms, constantly acting cheerful, and Mariko only became aware that this was all a lie later in their lives. I can understand the impulse not to talk about things - there are aspects of our childhoods that my sister and I have only talked about in the past few years, for example. But I don't think there were many (if any) moments in the manga when Mariko talked to other people about her experiences. She mentioned having a support system, but we rarely got to see that support system in action. Granted, maybe those moments existed but Mariko, still working on opening herself up emotionally, couldn't bring herself to depict them.

Overall, this was worth reading. It was short and I read it pretty quickly, but it continues to have a place in my thoughts.

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