The voices of the church choir practicing nearby soared as if on cue for a Hollywood soundtrack when the former newsman stood up to talk about his 37-year bout with the bottle.

A college roommate had introduced him to booze on a regular basis, he said, and he like what it did to him. "When I felt good, I could drink and feel better. When I felt rotten, I could drink and feel better," he told a group of 100 people in a church meeting room.

After college, a pattern developed. He'd go out for an after-work drink with the boys; eventually, they'd go home but he would keep drinking. Then the real problems began. He was fired from his first job and then four more. Three marriages "wound up diastrously because of my drinking." Twice he checked into the hospital with ulcers.

Finally, "I was drinking sevendays a week, 24 hours a day, totally out of control. Drink, pass out; drink, pass out."

As the background chorus suggests the story had a happy ending. Frightened one morning when he woke up paralyzed after a binge, he went to a friend and told him he needed help. The friend introduced him "sick, scared and shaking" to Alcoholics Anonymous.

His progress with AA wasn't easy, but now-after all those years with the bottle-he's sober.He's got a good job and he felt able recently to tell his story at one of the 780 weekly meetings of the AA in the Washington area.

Alcoholism is "Preventable Public Heath Enemy No. 2," second only to smoking, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano declared last week. An estimated 12 to 14 million Americans are problem drinkers or alcoholics, and drinking may be to blame for as many as 205,000 deaths a year. In the Washington area, there are 238,000 alcoholics, according to estimates of the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Inc. (WACADA).

In the wake of the tell-it-all attitude of such notables as former first lady Betty Ford, Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge and former Rep. Wilbur Mills, the stigma of alcoholism is disappearing, say the experts. "If it's good enough for Betty Ford, it's good enough for me," one 60-year-old woman told a counselor.

How do you know if you or a friend or family member has a drinking problem? And where do you go for help?

Some of the typical questions asked by alcoholism counselors:

Have you built up a tolerance for drinking over a period of time? That is, does it take more drinks to get a "buzz" on?

Are you switching kinds of alcohol, say from Scotch to beer, as a means of cutting back? If so, you already may be showing concern about your problem.

Do you hide your drinking?

Do you black out; that is, do things while drinking you don't remember when you sober up?

Are you preoccupied with drinking?

Do you gulp rather than sip? Do you intend to limit yourself to three drinks and end up downing six?

Are you running into trouble at work-showing up late or phoning in sick, especially on Monday morning?

But, warns Dr. Morris Chafetz, former head of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and now president of the private Health Education Foundation, these are the signs of a drinking problem already well-established.

Chafetz lists these even earlier warning signs. You're in trouble, he says, if:

You have to take a drink to function-if you need a drink to get going in the morning, for example.

You find yourself discomfited when you are in a situation where you cannot have alcohol.

People in your personal and professional life notice a striking change in you, such as usual timidity turned to violence or gregariousness to depression.

You find yourself getting hurt or bruised in little accidents; you tend to break things.

Someone who cares about you is discomfited. "That's a very important diagnostic sign," says Chafetz.

If you recognize yourself in either list and think you have a problem, where do you turn?

There are dozens of place offering information, advice and treatment in the Washington area to men, women and teen-agers, whose problems may range from the chronic inebriate needing emergency care at a detoxification center to the individual who simply feels he or she is drinking too much and wants someone to talk to confidentially.

Getting the alcoholic to participate in a rehabilitation program is another question. "The one willing to look for help is the rare bird," says Dr. Leonard Allen, chief of the D.C. Bureau of Alcoholic Treatment and Prevention.

Many, if not most, referrals for rehabilitation come from doctors, the courts (especially of those cited for driving while intoxicated) and employers.

Certainly the most widely known organization in the field is Alcoholics Anonymous, which claims about 1 million members worldwide. Its stated purpose is "to stay sober ourselves and to help others who may turn to us for help in achieving sobriety." The program is one of counseling and fellowship.

If you phone the AA's Washington Area Intergroup Office (244-2274), AA will have a member in your neighborhood contact you and arrange for your attendance at a meeting. The hour-long meetings are scheduled every night all over the Washington area.

All Washington area governmental jurisdictions have programs offering education and counseling for the problem drinker and his or her family, some at little or no cost, with phone numbers listed under the appropriate jurisdiction.

In Montgomery County, for example, Herbert Winstead, director of Alcoholism Health Services, thinks the county's program is the best in the state of Maryland, if not the country. The 24-hour line to call for help is 279-1631.

The Montgomery County program, for example includes regularly scheduled alcoholism education clinics and individual counseling and-for those who need it-detoxification facilities along with counseling at live-in Quarterway and Halfway houses.

For information about services available in the District of Columbia, phone the Bureau of Alcoholic Treatment and Prevention, 673-6692; Prince George's County Outpatient Alcohol Program, 345-2000; Fairfax County Local Alcoholism Services Centers, 533-0108; Arlington County Substance Abuse Services, 528-0884 or 920-3410; and Alexandria Division of Alcoholism Services, 683-6677.

A very important source of advice and referral is the 24-hour WACADA Hotline, 783-1300. WACADA, a volunteer group partly funded by United Way, maintains a thick "Coping Catolog" of help available in the Washington area to the alcoholic or his or her family. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By James M. Thresher-The Washington Post