Gloria Whitfield, 38, was addicted to heroin for almost 20 years, but it does not show on her face. She looks closer to 25.

A former secretary, Whitfield is soft-spoken but intense, a woman who has replaced her anger with enthusiasm about the future. She recently graduated from Rap Inc., a residential drug treatment program in the District.

Born and raised in Washington, Whitfield was married when she was 14, but the marriage lasted only a few years. She had four children. When she was 19, she hitchhiked to California, where she met a drug dealer who moved back to the District with her. "I started snorting (heroin) first, and became an addict before I knew what an addict was. . . . Our habits grew; we used more drugs daily."

Whitfield and her friend were shooting heroin and Bam, a diet pill used to boost the narcotic high. In 1967, her habit cost about $75 a day. Today, she estimates it would cost about $250 a day.

She said she quit her government job and began writing bad checks to support her habit. "I wrote thousands of dollars worth of checks."

She was later convicted of forgery and possession of narcotics and went to prison several times between 1965 and 1979.

Her children, now all grown, spent much of their lives with relatives while she bounced in and out of jail, but she remains close to two of them.

As an addict, Whitfield often felt besieged with loneliness and a sense of inadequacy. "Things were so messed up, I'd feel what the hell, it (heroin) was an escape. . . . It was a sick attitude." Many times she lay naked in a cold jail cell shaking as she went through withdrawal, but "I was determined to punish myself again."

She overdosed once. "My system was fairly clean. . . . I copped some drugs and went into the beauty parlor near 14th and Wallach. . . . I decided to oil up while I was waiting. . . . That's when I went out."

When she awoke, two junkies were trying to drag her down the street. They were slapping her face, trying to wake her up.

" 'Who'd you cop from?' -- that's the first thing I heard. That's how addicts are; they knew it was good stuff."

Eventually Whitfield got fed up with trying to hustle and keep a step ahead of the law. "The excitement was over. . . . It takes a long time to realize it's not the real world."

A U.S. District Court judge sent her to Rap in 1977. "I stayed 13 months, then split. I thought I was ready; I wasn't." She clawed at her stomach, and said, "My gut wasn't tight enough to achieve something."

She worked for the District government for a while, but was jailed again for forgery, she said. After nine months in jail, she returned to Rap. "This time I made it."

"Rap is not designed to make a person comfortable. . . . It's designed to strengthen a person. There's a saying there, that nothing is constant but change." She says she was pushed and prodded by the staff and became a counseling trainee.

"I made a big decision in my life that this was the type of work I wanted to do. . . . It's meaningful."

During her last stay at Rap, she met Ray Whitfield, 52, and they were married in April.

At last, Gloria Whitfield says she is happy. "I look so forward to making my small contribution. . . . I have ventured backward enough times."