The poet e.e. cummings once commented that, "I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart." And he probably didn't even have a stack of revolving charge cards that he had trouble making the minimums on -- one sure sign you are entering Debt Hell.

Another telltale development: phone calls from creditors and collection agencies. "They called me at home, they called me at work," remembers Mary Pat Seal of Dale City. "I just felt so harassed. It's not their fault I went out and spent that money, but it wasn't my fault my daughter was ill."

Mary Pat and her husband, Robbie, got married five years ago, when they were 19. They promptly had their first child. Robbie's income was uneven. They accumulated a number of medical bills. Their cars frequently needed repairs. They bought a house, and immediately "MasterCard and Visa landed on our door, as if we had money," Seal says. "Once you get a house you all of a sudden have no money, but the credit card companies think you do." They got an overdraft checking account and quickly overdrafted it paying bills.

"It was," says Seal, "a lot of bad planning." Finally, with calls from their 18 creditors coming in, her mother-in-law said if they wanted to avoid bankruptcy they should call Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a national nonprofit organization with six offices in the Washington area. They were $5,500 in debt.

Financial documents in hand, the Seals went to talk to a counselor in September '88. "She asked us about our mortgage, car payment, groceries, utilities, how much we paid for movies, the pets, medical bills, the newspaper. Every little detail. She figured out how much we spent versus how much we made. She said, 'You're over $500 in the hole every month, even if nothing unexpected happens.' "

With their counselor, the Seals worked out a budget. They also arranged to pay all their non-mortgage, non-automotive debt through CCCS in one combined payment per month. CCCS disperses the money to the creditors, who agreed to suspend interest and late fees for the duration and also lowered the minimum they would accept each month.

It may have been a good deal for the family -- even if they've been on a tight budget and without credit cards for the last two years -- but why did the creditors agree? Well, they realized the alternative was not getting any money at all if the couple filed for bankruptcy.

And how does CCCS survive? "I wondered that in the beginning," says Seal. "I thought, Is this on the up-and-up? How can it be free?"

She soon found out the answer: When a debt consolidation repayment is completed, CCCS asks for between 7 and 15 percent of the sum back from the creditors. In effect, some creditors are willing to accept their funds at a slight discount rather than risk getting nothing at all. (Other income is derived from local employers, who CCCS says are taking a more active role in assisting employees experiencing financial difficulty.)

In many areas of the country, CCCS does charge clients a minimal amount. Seal says she would have been willing to pay. Without CCCS, "We might not be married now. Financial problems put a lot of strain on a couple. And no matter what, our overall credit would be very, very poor."

"How did you go bankrupt?" Bill asked.

"Two ways," Mike said. "Gradually and then suddenly." -- "The Sun Also Rises" CCCS clients generally fall into three groups, says Jay Muzychenko, vice president of the umbrella group for the 550 CCCS offices, the National Foundation for Consumer Credit.

"About 34 percent of our clients can handle their problems on their own," he says. "They just need counseling. We're not taught how to budget in this society. So we say, 'Here's some techniques for managing your money so you can stop going to the ATM machine every day.' They need someone to help ask the right questions, and then they can meet all their contractual obligations on their own."

About 36 percent of the 300,000 families or individuals counseled last year need a further service: the one used by the Seals. In the Washington area, almost three-quarters of those who enroll in the debt management program successfully pay off what they owe; nationally, the figure is about 45 percent.

The final 30 percent need help beyond the scope of financial counseling -- say, from a lawyer or psychologist. "If someone's a cocaine abuser, how reliable is it they're going to be paying monthly payments into the program?" asks Muzychenko. "We don't want to put anyone on the line vis-a`-vis their creditors when underlying problems need to be solved first."

Drugs, however, aren't the usual culprit when credit overload threatens. In most cases, "Our perception is that people run into employment problems, overtime is cut off, they're laid off, go through either a separation or divorce, or there are medical problems. These people are probably not saving enough, so they didn't have a cushion. They can't absorb the impact."

A case in point is Karen Stimpson, who moved here from Montana and soon found herself owing $9,300 on credit cards and an installment loan. "My spending was out of control," the schoolteacher says. "When I was using my credit card to get gas and groceries at the 7-Eleven, I knew I was very much overextended."

First, she went to a credit assistance company in the District, which charged her a flat fee plus a percentage. But Stimpson wasn't happy with the irregular way it disbursed her money to the creditors, so she switched to CCCS. "It was really embarrassing to go, very humbling. But they don't make you feel embarrassed. I felt glad I had gone there."

Unlike Stimpson, many of those who call for an appointment don't show up. Judy McCoid, director of the Fairfax CCCS office, says her branch has a 60 percent show rate. "It's very difficult for a lot of people to come in and bare their souls, to say 'I can't handle this anymore.' " Sometimes, in the weeks between making an appointment and the day it is scheduled, the family finds other alternatives, such as borrowing from a relative.

In the nine years McCoid has been with the Fairfax office, she's seen a partial shift in the client profile. "They now have more money, their debt is higher, and they're more likely to have professional kinds of jobs."

A decade ago, she adds, "It was very unusual to write a program where the person's monthly partial payment to the creditors was over a thousand dollars. Now we're writing them for more than $2,000." The largest individual debt she's seen: 48 credit cards to the tune of $150,000.

Problems with debt in the Washington area can be measured in other ways. The number of CCCS offices here has increased from four (in the District, Alexandria, Fairfax and Rockville) to six (adding Frederick and Manassas) in the last three years.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients, which we attribute largely to the increase in the extension of credit," says Joanne Kerstetter, CCCS executive director for Greater Washington. "People think just because they're offered something, they can afford it. And often things do work out -- until a crisis."

Or until there's a slump in the economy. This year, volume in the Washington offices is running 20 percent over last year's level. "The economy traditionally has always gone in cycles," says Kerstetter. "And it appears we're entering the down cycle."

Bill, a finance manager for a car dealership, entered his own personal down cycle several years ago. Some of his financial indebtedness he knew about -- say, $10,000. The other $5,000, he says, was done on his cards without his knowledge.

"A girl I was living with, I got nailed by her," is how he puts it.

He went to CCCS. "What they did for me was arrange it so I only had to pay $412 a month," he says. "If I didn't go through them, I would have had to pay the {much-higher} minimums." Not to mention late fees and, especially, interest -- although even with the intercession of CCCS, some creditors continue to charge interest.

Bill, though, was lucky. "That's the key {suspension of interest}. It gives you a chance to catch up, pay them off, while trying to keep your credit intact. I'm not going to say your record will be perfect, but it's going to show you didn't stiff anyone."

There might, however, be some psychological effects. For Bill, the experience made him wary around women. "I kind of checked their credit out a little bit," he says.

A Self-Test

Is your debt threatening to become overwhelming? The National Foundation for Consumer Credit says that if you answer "yes" to two or more of the following questions, you should seek professional help:

Are you borrowing to pay for items you used to buy with cash?

Is an increasing percentage of your income going to pay debts?

Is your savings cushion inadequate or nonexistent?

Can you only make minimum payments on your revolving charge accounts?

Are you near or at the limit on your lines of credit?

Do you take out a new loan before the old one is paid off, or take a new one out to pay off the old loan?

Are you unsure about how much you owe?

Are your monthly credit bills (excluding rent or mortgage) more than 15 to 20 percent of your net income?

If you lost your job, would you be in immediate financial difficulty?

For further information: National Foundation for Consumer Credit, 1-800-388-2227; local branches: (301) 831-4636 (Frederick); (301) 231-5833 (Rockville); (703) 836-8772 (Alexandria); (703) 591-9020 (Fairfax); (703) 690-4779 (Manassas); (202) 638-6996 (the District); (301) 459-8766 (Southeast Maryland).