The first hint I had that something might be wrong came six months ago, when a friend calling from Michigan asked if I considered shopping a narcotic.

"A narcotic? You mean like heroin or morphine? Don't be absurd," I told this woman with whom I've shopped from Massachusetts to Florida. With forced graciousness, I thanked her for this new slant on my behavior and headed straight to Loehmann's for an hour of acquisition therapy.

Hint number two that my favorite pastime was quickly becoming America's hot new social disease came when my father, calling from Silver Spring, asked if I had read Friday's paper "The Compulsion to Spend, Spend, Spend," Style Plus, July 5 .

Using a tone of parental concern previously reserved for reports on toxic shock syndrome, herpes among singles and the carcinogenic properties of coffee, he asked what I thought about the trio of articles on compulsive shopping. More to the point, he asked whether I might be among the afflicted.

"Certainly not," I retorted smugly. "You're only a compulsive shopper if you buy retail."

With that, I and two visiting friends jumped into the car and drove to Amvets, the thrift shop nearest my house. Sherry, a criminal lawyer and body builder with whom I've shopped from London to Rio, snagged some blue nylon workout shorts for $1.45.

Theo, custom designer/builder, left empty-handed, though not for trying. Amvets, was, after all, the scene of such earlier triumphs as the $22 Britches three-piece wool suit, which looks as if it were made for him, and the $7 white sport coat, requiring only a pink carnation for use on prom night or a hibiscus bud for an evening in Palm Beach.

In less than 30 minutes, I had found a 66-cent illustrated edition of Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson stories, copyright 1928, and two chartreuse spandex and nylon net children's ballet costumes -- $1.30 the pair, thus bringing to 10 my collection of juvenile tutus.

While it is true I have no children, I do have a goodly number of little friends and one never knows when they will be seized with the desire to mount a rec room production of "Giselle."

Despite our jollity that night, however, the questions posed by trendy shrinks could not be easily dismissed. Like the tests in Cosmo ("How To Tell When You're Really Living With a Man"), this interrogatory demanded brutal self-analysis.

I answered "yes" to some of psychiatrist Richard Greenberg's questions: "Do you feel let down after a day at the mall?" An entire day at a mall? Who wouldn't feel dreadful?

"Do you sometimes shop alone?" You bet. Why subject others to Value Village after a rainstorm, when this uptown thrift shop smells just like a Paris pissoir, or risk a friendship by taking another junket to your favorite factory outlets?

"Do you feel anxious if you haven't been to a store in a week?" Of course, and by the way, thank God for street vendors. Besides, what do therapists do for cat food and fresh vegetables, not to mention entertainment?

On the plus side, no one of my acquaintance hangs around auto showrooms unless the car has just been recalled, and we certainly don't buy eight of anything out of indecision, as Greenberg notes in his list of warning signs.

We may stockpile cases of old Coke and new Beaujolais, or buy pantyhose by the dozen when we find the perfect color and fit, but we who live in the marts of cut-rate commerce are anything but indecisive. In that world, to hesitate is to be lost.

We are not, repeat not, compulsive.

We are recreational shoppers and proud of it.

We are your sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, colleagues and neighbors, folks for whom tennis is an excuse to buy new whites and a dinner party the occasion to trot out those adorable heliotrope napkins. We are people who care more for sales than sailing and truly believe that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Just as there are social drinkers and sometime-gamblers, so there are amateur shoppers who simply love the lure of the marketplace.

And frankly, we're getting sick and tired of all this new attention being paid us.

Take the two ladies at the Rockville Loehmann's last Saturday who never missed a conversational beat as they riffled through rack after rack of blouses. Each had read about compulsive shopping and each had rejected the label for herself.

"I've been coming to Loehmann's every Saturday for 20 years. I see all my friends here. We chat, catch up on news, and we shop. Maybe, like the article says, I am lonely and don't know it. But who cares?" said one. Just as there are social drinkers and sometime-gamblers, so there are amateur shoppers who simply love the lure of the marketplace. And frankly, we're getting sick and tired of all this new attention being paid us.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous might call this the denial stage, but to the women at Loehmann's and countless others, the Saturday morning "shop op" (the commercial analogue of the White House photo op) is as justifiable as their husbands' weekly golf outings and the kids' soccer practice.

Several hours later, a Washington jewelry designer stood in a Silver Spring resale shop examining a lovely old petit-point piano bench cover. She, too, had read the article.

"I'm not compulsive. I go to flea markets and thrift shops. My mother has the problem. She goes to Bloomingdale's. Beside, I own a piano," the designer said. Now all she needs is the bench.

Where else but in the truly private sector of front yards, garages and basements could one find a pearlized, rhinestone-studded blue leather jacket for 15 cents, or a black crepe evening blouse with pink and green sequined roses for a quarter?

My favorite ensemble remains the 1950s Suzy Perette iridescent blue-and-green strapless taffeta cocktail dress with matching jacket. It cost 60 cents at Value Village, and 10 times that to dry clean. It would have been a bargain at twice the price, considering it made its social debut at the White House correspondents' dinner some years back.

I was hoping Nancy Reagan and I might compare shopping notes that night, but alas . . .

We who frequent the wonderful world of flea markets, auctions and thrift shops derive extreme satisfaction adding up the price of our outerwear and discovering the total wouldn't cover lunch at Sholl's.

We are secure in the knowledge that we can look like a million bucks on a fin, that we are providing revenue and work for those at Goodwill, the Salvation Army and other charities and that we have helped buy new roofs and furnaces for those churches whose white elephants we so assiduously stalk.

Of course when our closets and bureaus become jammed with these treasures, we simply recycle them whence they came. Certainly it's a lot easier to pitch out a Brooks Brothers cashmere sweater that cost a dollar than one costing $100.

Like hardy travelers constantly on the lookout for great little restaurants and clubs in faraway places, we have developed an impressive network around the country and the globe.

Several years ago I met a woman from Georgia at a party here and rather casually admired her plastic-and-rhinestone earrings.

"Five cents at the Waldo flea," she said, revealing the delights of this flyspeck town in North Florida that boasts a terrific Saturday market. I've since passed this along to dozens of southbound travelers.

Shortly before flying to London last March, I asked several world-class shoppers how best to part with a fistful of strong dollars. All of them mentioned the open-air Saturday morning Portobello Road market, and all said it was critical to arrive no later than 8 o'clock.

Ignoring the snow that bleak morn, Sherry and I had plowed through five blocks of stalls and stands before seeing the antique watch dealer.

The timepiece that instantly caught my eye was a 1918 lady's Rolex with porcelain face, Roman numerals and an engraved back that opened like a pocketwatch. It was marked 180 pounds.

"Will you take 160?" I asked, quickly calculating the exchange at about $175.

"No, let's make it 150. Anyone who's up and about this early must be quite serious about watches," he said.

I was overwhelmed by his British gallantry. Half an hour later, however, I was nearly trampled by five biddies and a vicious punkette at the St. Peter's Church jumble sale up the street.

"You will go broke buying bargains," my father warns me repeatedly and to no avail.

Two years ago, I was given a T-shirt that read "When the going gets tough . . ." etc. Last Christmas, I received a "Born to Shop" button from the very woman in Michigan who thinks I'm a junk-store junkie. Yet another gave me a bumper sticker exhorting "Shop until you drop."

Who can quit with this kind of social reinforcement? Perhaps I should just stop resisting and admit I'm out of control. "My name is Anne and I have a shopping problem . . ."

If, as psychiatrists say, this really is a personality disorder, then perhaps I, as a recovering shopaholic, should try to help others.

Socialite Cornelia Guest once lamented that "all the good diseases" had already been taken by well-born matrons. But that was before shopping hit the list.

Perhaps Betty Ford could be persuaded to open a shopper's wing in her drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

Charity balls could be staged simultaneously across the country. There would be door prizes:

*An all-expense-paid hour at Neiman-Marcus.

*A trip for two to Filene's basement.

*Lunch with Sy Syms.

Of course, everyone attending the charity ball will want to buy a new outfit.

Or two.

Or three or four, or maybe more . . .