Up to the podium he strides, a powerful presence in navy blue amid the cheering crowd, his face so pleased that in it you might even see his victory. The applause rebounds against the chandeliers in the banquet room packed with former drug addicts and supporters, and to the front moves WRC-TV anchorman Jim Vance, a fortified man in all his glory.

"Will you believe me when I tell you that nobody alive is more pleased to be in your company than I am tonight?" he calls out to the 300 gathered to celebrate the 15th anniversary of RAP Inc., a drug rehabilitation group. He is speaking publicly for the first time about his struggle with addiction. More cheers and applause.

"The reason being that if this event were held at the same time last year, I would not have been in your company. I suffered self-esteem that was so low that it was unbelievable. The question might be asked -- and it was certainly asked of me by me -- how in God's name with all that I have apparently going for me -- the career, good health, wonderful children, fulfillment, a life full of rewards -- how in the world could I suffer low self-esteem?

"It was easy. I had a disease. I had a disease of chemical addiction. That is a polite euphemism that I like to use. Other people call it different things."

He is talking louder now, a minister educating his followers, his voice in cadences of exhilaration and exhortation.

"Have you ever been on foot in the wilderness, completely, absolutely lost, have no idea where you are, how to get anywhere else? And it's winter and cold and getting dark? I got lost once. A sense of dread, of fear, of panic comes over you at a time like that . . . It's an ungodly, unearthly, unreal panic and fear. It is the point that too many of us get to when we are addicted. You get to a point where you want to die because you figure that's the best solution . . .

"You just want to die," he whispers. Silence descends on the room. "I call it a rock slide in the dark wilderness."

Jim Vance, 43, the affable and enormously popular Channel 4 anchor, hit his rock slide in January when he surprised the Washington community by publicly admitting to a drug addiction. This week he broke his silence about it, about three months after his return to the TV station from the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where he was treated for exhaustion, depression and what he says was a dependency on cocaine and prescription drugs.

In an interview before his address to RAP Wednesday evening, Vance called the process of realizing that he was addicted and his subsequent pleas for help "the most difficult thing I have ever had to deal with -- or ever hope to go through -- in my life."

He dates the beginning of his drug addiction back three or four years, and says that today he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Narcotics Anonymous meetings two to three times a week.

"I don't go because there are revelations at any given one," he says. "I go because people who I learned to trust and whose expertise I came to believe told me that's what I needed to do."

Sitting alone in a side room before his speech to the fund-raising dinner, Vance seemed relaxed and in good spirits. He talked like a man who has visited and revisted his life during the last six months, yet wasn't eager to get too specific about his recent pain.

"I'm getting there," he says. "My life is not turned around to the extent that everything is sunshine and roses, and I didn't expect it to. The same pressures, stresses and anxieties that I left were here when I came back. They didn't go away. The only thing that changed was my capacity to deal with them."

He said he chose this forum to go public because he thought that he could offer some hope to the addicted.

"I don't pretend to know what all these people have been through," he says, "but I sure do have a sense of it . . . I've seen the devil, too. There's a certain fraternity among those who have seen that horrible visage."

Vance says he cannot recall any dramatic event that led him to realize he had a drug problem, but did note his father had been an alcoholic.

"My father died from alcoholism at 38," says Vance, "and it has been demonstrated, if not conclusively proven, that there is some hereditary connection."

For his part, Vance says, "There was no burning bush or anything -- I really don't know.

"You just can't imagine how low my esteem got . . . There was a depression that didn't seem to have its roots in anything else. I didn't know what was happening to me. I was sinking . . . There were no beginnings, only the end."

A longtime acquaintance of Vance's says that to his friends and coworkers it had been apparent something was amiss for several years, in part evidenced by Vance's dramatic mood swings. The acquaintance said it was generally known that Vance had a drug problem, and it was discussed by his friends in terms of "when is Jim going to get some help."

In early January, as part of its nightly news program, the station announced that Vance was taking a leave of absence to check himself into the Betty Ford Center, a 60-patient drug and alcoholic rehabilitation program started by the former first lady. Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli and Mary Tyler Moore have been treated there.

That evening the station's story said: "Channel 4 management has indicated Jim has been under considerable pressure in recent months. In order to maintain the high standards of journalism and personal integrity which have marked his 15 years at WRC-TV, Jim has asked for a leave of absense at this time."

Vance returned on the air Feb. 18.

"I think he's wonderful. He's up every day," said Fred DeMarco, vice president and general manager of WRC. "His on-air performance has been outstanding."

"He seems to be someone very excited about his own life these days," says Susan King, the coanchor with Vance on Channel 4's 6 p.m. newscast. "Now when I go in there complaining, he gives me a dose of 'don't let 'em get you down.'

"The main thing I noticed when he got back was that a lot of people didn't know what to say to him, but there was a steady stream of people into his office with a show of support," says King. "I think there was a collective sigh of relief that he was back because he has always been such a leading force in the newsroom."

Vance, one of the most enduringly popular of the local news anchors, says he has received about 1,000 letters of support since his announcement, all of which he intends to answer personally.

"I'm trying to do at least five a day," he says. "If they took the time to write, I'll make the time to answer. I'm grateful that they said they noted the courage it took to admit the problem. I have a lot to live for.

"But these are people here who really have the courage," he said, speaking of inner city youths who have turned to RAP for rehabilitation. "Those born into destitute situations, who find themselves in a pit and still gather the strength to fight their way out, to say 'I don't have to live like that.' I know how bad I was, I know what kind of sickness it is. I'd like to think I can be some kind of example."

Vance credits one particular person for helping him pull his life to together.

"There is one person," he says, "but I'm not going to tell you who it is because it would embarrass her."

Later, he told his audience, "There is a person here in this room now without whom I would be dead. She would not let me die. She could not make me live. She could not make me want to live. But she would not let me die."

Vance is divorced and has three children, age 23, 15 and 9. He joined WRC-TV as a general assignment reporter in 1969, and in 1972 he was named coanchor of the weekday evening newscast. In 1977, he won an Emmy for his coverage of the Hanafi Muslim seizure of the B'nai B'rith and District buildings. Vance reportedly earns about $250,000 annually.

He says, all in all, it's been a good life.

"I had the occasion to meet Muhammad Ali last year," he says, "and one of the things he said was that every man has to be tested and tried and you don't know what kind of man you are and you never will until you are.

"I considered this my test, and I consider it my trial and I consider it almost an unholy rite of passage," he says, smiling. "I mean I would have wished that my test had been a bit easier. I always thought I had some idea of what I was about. But there is a clarity now. That has come from my experience. Frankly, I'm grateful for that. But like I say, I wish I could have just read it someplace."

He is nearing the end of his talk to RAP now, and he is picking up confidence and tempo, his voice as clear as during his evening newscasts. The audience hasn't touched its food in 20 minutes.

"Chemical addiction will kill you," he says. "I was afflicted with it. You see, it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what you do for a living, it doesn't matter how much money you make or how much prestige you think you have, it doesn't matter how bright you are, or how strong you think you are.

"Sometimes the notion of personal strength is what makes you most vulnerable.

"It doesn't matter if during the course of your life you have looked down the end of shotguns and watched someone pull the trigger, and it went click because it misfired, and you laughed and walked away.

"It doesn't matter.

"It doesn't matter if you raced cars up and down city streets and flipped cars over many times and wrapped them around trees and got out and brushed yourself off, and walked way.

"It doesn't matter if you have experienced that time in the 1960s when many of us indulged, you picked it up and put it down and you laughed and walked away.

"It doesn't matter, one thing after another, one point after another, until you're thinking you're just about the baddest thing since sliced bread. And you can handle just about everything because you have handled just about everything.

"It is when you get to that you become most vulnerable because you develop one hell of a denial system. That is the time when you're so hooked, so strung out, that you don't care who knows. That is the time you need the help."

There is a tender, heart-swelling moment when he hugs Ron Clark, the director of RAP. The crowd is on its feet again.

"Straight from the heart," calls out a man grabbing Vance's hand.

"We love you, Jim," says another.

He strides from the banquet room at 10:45 p.m. and steps into a chauffeured car, waiting to whisk him to the 11 o'clock news.