Q: I was recently arrested on a DWI charge. I have not told anyone and live in fear of being faced by family or friends about this incident.

I know I did wrong and will have to pay the legal consequences, but how can I live with this fear of others finding out? I don't know if I will ever feel good about myself again. I have even considered leaving this area (which is my home).

I just don't know if I will ever have peace of mind again.

A: Driving While Intoxicated is a serious charge, but it may be the best thing that ever happened to you.

If you think facing your family and friends about the news of your arrest would be hard, imagine how they'd feel if you were one of the 46,200 who died in traffic accidents last year, or one of the 140,000 who will suffer life-long mental or physical handicaps. Or imagine how you'd feel if you hurt or killed someone.

According to the National Safety Council, half of traffic deaths are alcohol-related -- and that doesn't count the deaths in accidents caused by amphetamines, marijuana or other drugs that confuse the driver's perception of time and space.

If you're going to become afraid of something, drunk driving is a good place to start.

You don't have to tell your friends about your arrest, however, unless your town is so small they'll hear about it anyway. You needn't tell your family, either, but you'll probably feel better about it if you did.

Being honest with them will help you get rid of your depression and anxiety, and being honest with yourself will help you find out if you're an alcoholic. This may sound shocking, but it's a real possibility.

Ask yourself: Do you drink regularly and often get drunk? Do you wish you didn't drink? Do you say you'll stop for a week or a month -- and then start sooner? Do things go wrong when you drink at home? Have you had any other trouble with the law? Do other people say you're drinking too much? Do you gulp your drinks? Do you try to get more than your share at a party? Do you get drunk after swearing you won't? Have you switched from one kind of alcohol to another so you'd drink less? Do you need a drink to get started in the morning -- or to stop shaking? Do you skip work or school after a big night -- and tell yourself it's the flu? Do you ever have blackouts, when you can't remember what happened -- even though you were awake?

If you answered "yes" to more than three questions, you need help. You may not want to proclaim it from the rooftops -- most people don't -- but don't be ashamed. It's the brave who seek help.

Alcoholics Anonymous -- probably the best, most supportive self-help group in the world -- is a good place to start. This 50-year-old organization, run entirely by volunteers, has nearly 32,000 groups in this country. It's listed in the phone book -- and it's free.

They'll counsel you by phone or send someone to see you if you'd like, or take you to a meeting, or simply tell you when and where the meetings are and which ones are open or closed -- but no one will push you to go there or to stay.

The open meetings are for members, families and guests, as long as they're willing to keep the anonymity of others. This would be a good, safe place to talk about your arrest and figure out whether it was a terrible fluke or a dangerous sign.

The closed meetings are for people who want to quit drinking, either because they know they're alcoholics or they think they have drinking problems.

The fact that you are so concerned about your arrest, avoiding people and living in fear of discovery, strongly suggests that alcohol is a threat to you, even if your drinking habits are usually moderate.

Some people who are particularly vulnerable don't drink as much as others, or as often or as regularly -- yet they're subjecting their bodies to serious, cumulative damage. What appears to be normal drinking can progress to heavy drinking and then to problem drinking and alcoholism. It's often a gradual process, but it can happen very fast.

While some scientists still say alcoholism is a behavioral problem, more and more doctors believe its roots are almost always biological. Recent research has found, among other things, that alcoholics have a liver enzyme defect, process alcohol poorly and have different brain wave patterns. These findings support a well-known fact: A person is four times more likely to become an alcoholic if there is an alcoholic in the family.

Drinking affects many more people than the drinker. If you want to know what it's like for them, read When Your Parent Drinks Too Much, by Eric Ryerson (Facts on File; $12.95), a fine, practical book for teen-agers, or go to a meeting of Adult Children of Alcoholics, a branch of Al-Anon.

The word "only" was inadvertently dropped from a sentence in last week's column, "Teen-Age Homosexuality." The sentence should have read, "Promiscuity is not only the sign of low self-esteem, but it inevitably lowers it more."

Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.