OH LOOK, IT'S ONLY 25 more miles. That's beautiful," said Carlyn Goetz, counting off another milepost from her front-row seat in the chartered bus on its daily run to Atlantic City.

Jittering with anticipation, the attractive Pikesville, Md., retiree, like the 45 other passengers who boarded the silver coach at stops in Washington and suburban Maryland, had expected to be gambling by now. Repairs to a rear wheel had delayed them more than an hour, but the mood still sparkled; laughter undaunted by the rain outside filled the bus as it sped across south Jersey's flatlands toward the casinos. This might be the day they'd hit it big.

"I love it. It gets in your blood," said Goetz, explaining the lure of New Jersey's gambling oasis and the slot machines she'd be playing for the next six hours. "All my life I've worked and saved for a rainy day, so now it's raining," she said, gesturing at the downpour.

Her husband, Sidney, who has no fondness for gambling but usually escorts Goetz on these monthly excursions, wasn't along. "She used to get her kicks out of me, now she gets them out of the machines," he said later. "I hate losing money. One day I watched a guy lose $220 at craps in just a couple of minutes. If that had been me, they'd have had to call the undertaker -- it would've killed me."

Goetz's working at his part-time job that day didn't faze his wife. Thousands of women -- particularly senior citizens -- regularly make the Atlantic City trip alone. They clamber aboard buses in New York and Philadelphia, Wilmington and Washington and countless suburbs in between. Four buses leave the Capital Hilton every morning; in the summer as many as 20 buses carry District area gamblers to Atlantic City every day. They come in wheelchairs and walkers, in babushkas and bifocals, in wigs and polyester pantsuits. And even though most of them lose -- Goetz says her average is $75 a trip -- they keep returning.

Arriving in Atlantic City, Goetz swiftly planted herself in front of a slot machine in Claridge's, a once- abandoned Atlantic City hotel now reborn with cushy red carpets, dazzling chandeliers and bosomy cocktail waitresses. Surrounded by flashing lights, a haze of cigarette smoke and the clatter of coins hitting metal, Goetz tugged at the machine's arm, hoping for three oranges. "There's always so much noise when you hit. You'd think you're getting a million dollars," she laughed, "but it's just $3 for the $5 you just played."

GAMBLING IS all-American entertainment in the 1980s. Gambling is fun. Carlyn Goetz compares her periodic trips to Atlantic City to a medicinal tonic: "It's better than a shot from the doctor, and Medicare doesn't have to pay, either."

But for growing numbers of women, gambling is more like a poison. Gambling's strong ties to sports once made it an almost exclusively male pastime, but with lottery tickets now standard inventory in neighborhood convenience stores, outlawed electronic poker machines commonplace in bars and lodge halls and a bingo game available almost every night of the week in many cities including the District, gambling has found a vast new audience in women.

Given opportunity to gamble, and the income and credit to pay for it, women are proving themselves as vulnerable as men to compulsive gambling. Women like Rena Campbell, a 34-year-old Commerce Department employe, gamble away the mortgage payments and money for their kids' shoes at bingo halls around Washington. Women like Alice (who, like most compulsive gamblers, prefers to be known only by her first name), a middle-aged grandmother addicted to electronic poker machines, spend every cent they can earn, beg or borrow. And women like Beverly, hooked on the high she felt at the slot ma- chines, gamble away thousands of dollars, convinced that the big win is just a quarter away.

No one is certain why gambling is just an entertainment for a woman like Carlyn Goetz yet becomes a consuming obsession for women like Rena Campbell, Alice and Beverly. In the ranks of compulsive gamblers, who now number at least 2 million, women make up 20 percent of the total, say some experts. (Ten years ago, the figure was 5 percent.) Compulsive gambling is spreading so rapidly among women, these experts say, that 15 years from now they will make up half the problem gambler population of the country.

RENA CAMPBELL'S problem was bingo and poker -- she played six nights a week -- leaving her husband, her son and three daughters for bingo on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and poker games on Fridays and Saturdays. "I stayed home Wednesdays," she recalled in a recent interview, "but that was only because there was no place to go to gamble. I couldn't stop. It made me crazy to stay home. I'd sit there thinking, 'Tonight's the night I'll win. I have to go.'

Campbell started playing bingo when she was 15. "My aunt took me. I remember all those stacks of money," she said. A couple of years ago Campbell began betting more and more of her $14,000-a-year paycheck. In 1983, credit cards arrived, unsolicited. Soon she had borrowed $2,000 on each card.

With her losses mounting, she gambled away utility payments and a couple of mortgage installments, hoping to win her way out of debt. "Just one more night," she'd think. "I'll hit it big, pay all the bills, then quit." But the big hit never came. She had violent arguments with her husband. Creditors hounded her at work.

Finally, she saw a television news report on compulsive gambling that mentioned the Washington Center for Pathological Gambling, a treatment center in College Park run by physicians and psychologists. She began twice-weekly therapy sessions.

"They helped me realize that I had a sickness," she said, "and that I'd have to work all my life to control it."

BEVERLY was far more devastated by her addiction to slot machines when she sought treatment at Taylor Manor, a psychiatric hospital in Ellicott City, Md.

What started as a casual weekend indulgence in her late teens had swallowed her. Overwhelmed by years of lies and loans, Beverly, now in her early thirties, said recently, "I'm begging for help." As she contemplated the size of her gambling debt during an interview at Taylor Manor, Beverly gripped the arms of her chair, her knuckles turning white. "It's five, maybe six figures," she said of what she had lost. "I can't think, I just can't think."

Gambling gave her an enormous psychic kick. "It's the action," she said in short staccato bursts. "It's different from anything else. . . . You can actually get dizzy, you get so high."

In the months before she hit bottom, "I gambled to get even," Beverly said. "I kept going to get my money back. I thought they owed it to me." Her tone said she was fighting for more than economic survival. She had to prove she wasn't a loser. ALICE never wanted to admit she was a loser, but at least $5,000 had passed through her hands after she first played poker on an illegally modified video game machine in a bar near her home. Night after night, she had nightmares that she was drowning.

Although her husband of 30 years threatened alternatively to divorce her or throw her out, the gambling continued, as did the lies and cheating it took to keep her in quarters to play the machines. Some experts say the poker machines are the most addictive form of gambling.

Alice played the poker machines by the hour, rarely even turning away for a sip of soda the bartender often placed by her. She pawned her diamond engagement ring for $25, twice cleaned out the family savings account, borrowed from her son, loan companies and friends. monthly paycheck in hand, she left work, made a quick stop at the bank and headed straight for the poker machines. Her husband, a bus driver, was making one of his frequent overnight runs. Tonight would be the big win, she told herself. She'd pay back all her debts and quit for good.

Working the deal and discard buttons in search of a winning hand, Alice kept pumping the machine with quarters. In one hour she lost it all -- $275. She walked home feeling suicidal.

Two nights later, she walked into her first Gamblers Anonymous meeting in a dimly lighted basement room of a church in Towson, Md. She emerged euphoric, feeling a bond of friendship with the 11 men with whom she'd just exchanged horror stories.

One by one, they had told their stories, like Jerry, whose gambling had wrecked two marriages and bankrupted his business. Others told of losing jobs, forging checks, embezzling.

Burt talked about how he hasn't gambled for eight months. Bob was taking his turn as group leader that night. An inactive Roman Catholic priest, he says his five-year poker habit bankrupted him morally, spiritually and financially. He remembers leaving all-night card games at daybreak, just in time for Sunday mass.

"I was dying, I was dying inside," he said in an interview, remembering how he lost hundreds of dollars in a high- stakes poker game and later that night, near the altar of his dark and empty church, cried out to God: "Why, why did you let those rich men win?" After all, when Bob won, he took the kids to a ball game. He deserved to win, he thought.

Later, Alice said, she felt like a small-time gambler. If they could beat their habits, she said, inhaling on a filter-tipped Camel, then she could, too. Most of all, she said with a look of pain: "I want to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I like you.' I can't do that now."

MOST FEMALE compulsive gamblers are introduced to the habit in their early twenties while men begin in their teens. Although women bet considerably less than men, their addictions follow a similar course, descending on a self-destructive spiral from an initial big win, leading to heavier betting, mounting losses, borrowing and sometimes stealing money to keep gambling until they finally hit bottom, filled with self- loathing and hopelessness. At that point many see suicide as their only option.

Treatment programs for pathological gamblers, let alone programs specially tailored to the needs of women gamblers, are few; however, the Washington-Baltimore area seems to offer the nation's heaviest concentration with the Washington Center, Taylor Manor and the Preston Center in Baltimore, a clinic for compulsive gamblers recently opened by the National Foundation for the Study and Treatment of Pathological Gambling. The Veterans Administration operates treatment programs at its hospital in Brecksville, Ohio, and Lyons, N.J.

Experts in the treatment of pathological gambling are fond of noting that there are more than 4,000 programs to treat America's 9 to 10 million alcoholics, but fewer than a dozen inpatient programs to treat the country's more than 2 million compulsive gamblers.

State legislatures, they say, have been slow about appropriating funds for gambling treatment programs. Maryland was the first to budget money for such a program in 1979, but has spent only $500,000 to treat compulsive gamblers in the last five years. The state's lottery advertising budget for 1983 was $2 milion.

A CHORUS of nearly 40 voices let out a long, loud "Noooooooo" when the bus driver asked, "Do we have any big winners with us tonight?"

"Yeah!" shouted a voice from the rear as the bus pulls away from Atlantic City. "I got 40 cents."

Tired, happy and mostly broke, they headed back with few apparent regrets. Losing, it seems, is fun.

Jean Meuse, a well- groomed 69-year-old widow, made the trip with her daughter. Together, they dropped $400. She's an Atlantic City regular and this night she shrugged off her losses. "Who cares, honey," she said, munching on a hot dog bought with her last dollar. "It's only money. It was great. I told my doctor: I needed this," she added, explaining that just a week ago she was released from the hospital, where she was treated for a heart condition.

Carlyn Goetz lost "the usual," refusing to be precise. "It was terrific," she said. "Maybe next time I'll get lucky. It's a hell of a way to make a living."

Clearly, the action is the magic and the magnet, no less than it is for Beverly and Alice and Rena Campbell, who'd probably never be caught riding a bus to Atlantic City. "A compulsive gambler would never go by bus," said one expert. "It isn't grandiose enough for his self-image."

Beverly was released from Taylor Manor early in December. Her doctors report she's stable, still abstaining from gambling, and on her way to becoming one of their success stories.

Alice never came back to the Friday night Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Towson. But Father Bob thinks he may see her again someday. "It all takes time," he explained.

Rena Campbell hasn't played bingo or poker in more than six months, but she still thinks about it even while she's working 70 hours a week at two jobs to pay off her debts. "I talk myself out of it," she explained . . . I just keep saying, 'Rena, you don't want to go back to where you were.'

Her weekly budget still includes a dollar a day to play the District lottery, an indulgence she won't forsake. "One of these days," she said, "I'm going to hit a million."