When I was 17, my father tried to kill himself for the second time. I didn’t know it was the second time — as a matter of fact, I didn’t know that he tried to kill himself, either, until my mom uttered one sentence that changed the course of my life: “He left a note.”

He survived that attempt. And the next one, too, a year after that. He didn’t survive the last one, though, which took place on a frigid December evening when I was 24.

It likely seems that this man would have been incredibly depressed, but at least outwardly, that was not the case. At his wake, this was the constant refrain: “I never knew,” or “He was the last person I would have thought would do something like this.” My father possessed the kind of rare, remarkable intelligence that someone feels lucky to come across once in a lifetime. He was the parent who, without complaint, drove his kids and their friends both ways to the mall or the movies.

But as number nine in a parade of 15 freckle-faced children, he grew up both hungry and determined to provide for his children in a way his own father did not. This determination was not the admirable kind; it was the kind that provoked demons in the form of an addiction to lottery gambling.

I would have given anything to have been led to this knowledge in a transparent way. I wish that my parents had sat me down and explained to me, using terms I understood, that my father was an addict. He was sick. He would lie. He would feel the kind of guilt and paralyzing shame I hope to never feel.

I wish they told me that even after a night where we ate spaghetti and played Scrabble or looked through old pictures and laughed together — even after a night like this, he would still leave his bed in the twilight hours, hoping to never see us again.

I wish they would have told me all of these things. Instead, I woke up on a dim March morning and panicked that my father would not wake up. Instead, I heard four words: “He left a note.”

Perhaps it is a choice the first time you do it, my parents might have warned, but addiction does become a disease where the sufferer feels like they have no choice at all. It does not mean that he doesn’t love you.

But because I was not told any of these things, on my father’s birthday — Saint Patrick’s Day, 2003 — I had to sit beside my younger brother on a stiff cot in my father’s room at a rehabilitation center while my mother paced behind us. Four days before that, he had been my rock. The man who sat in front of me was someone I did not know.

“But, why?” I asked. “Don’t you love us?”

“I can’t explain it,” he said. He rubbed his eyes and told us his roommate snored. The room was, remarkably, nearly identical to the one I would move into less than six months later, when I left for college. “I promise I’ll never do it again.”

(He was sick. He would lie.)

How does one know when it is time to tell the children when someone they love suffers from addiction? When addiction is a problem. When addiction interrupts the daily flow of life. When someone rejects rational thought in favor of emotions or innate needs or desires. When their big brother or sister’s mood is more than teenage hormones. The conversation about the gritty gravity of what addiction is, though, needs to happen before money goes missing, before pill bottles from old surgeries clear themselves from the cabinet, or before eyes come home red and dilated.

If your children are lucky enough to escape the throes of addiction themselves, then in the very least they will know someone who struggles with it. Your kids know more than you think. (And if they don’t, then at least one of their friends does.) If parents are not honest and approachable people for children to turn to, then who will they turn to when they need comfort, reassurance, or information the most?

Smith is a writer and the lead creative writing professor for Southern New Hampshire University. She tweets @jf_smit.

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