Brig. Gen. (ret.) Robert S. McGarry met a West Point classmate of his recently at a meeting -- of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"He'd been a drinking buddy," McGarry muses today. "I hadn't seen him since the '50s, but our careers followed the same paths. So did our alcoholism. And there we were, ending up at the same place."

Today Robert S. McGarry -- he doesn't use his military title anymore -- is Montgomery County's director of transportation.

It was in this job, two days after Christmas 1985, that he finally owned up to some 40 years of alcoholism and checked himself into Suburban Hospital.

And it wasn't until a few days later, when a reporter for a community newspaper caught up with him and asked him why he was in the hospital, that he actually said it.

"My first thought was, 'Ohmigod, what am I going to say?' and then I thought, 'What the hell.' And I told him I was in for the treatment of alcoholism.

"I guess he expected me to say heart trouble or sore foot or something, because he almost dropped the phone." ::

That was when his new life began. His life as a an alcoholic who no longer drinks. His life after alcohol.

Once his life centered around his next drink. Today his major concern is communicating his sense of freedom to "all the others out there who are afraid to admit they need help." McGarry used to be like that, and now his dearest wish is to share the joy and wonder of life without liquor. ::

By the time he entered the Suburban program, McGarry was sipping all day long from a bottle he kept in his desk. County officials who worked with him, often on a daily basis, say they didn't even know he drank until he announced he was going into the hospital for three weeks.

His wife, Sally, to whom he has been married for 4 1/2 years, knew he drank a lot -- six or eight drinks before dinner every night -- but had no idea he was an alcoholic.

In fact, as McGarry looks back over an extraordinarily successful career, he nods in wonder and says over and over: "I really was an incredibly lucky alcoholic." He was an alcoholic throughout his years at West Point, throughout his army Corps of Engineers career, retiring after 25 years, from his final assignment as chief of the Baltimore District. He was an alcoholic throughout his subsequent six years as general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and in the first few years of his current position. Of the army, he says, "in my day, you were supposed to drink a lot and hold it. Drinking was a part of life in the army."

McGarry today is a healthy-looking, athletic giant (6-foot-6) -- affable, quick. Drinking was an integral part of his family, a rite of passage to his adulthood. Eventually, it became the guiding force in his life. The center of everything. He would rage and seethe if something interfered with his drinking time.

"I vividly remember -- of course you drink for your own reasons, and I'm not blaming my family -- but I remember telling my grandmother, who was an alcoholic, that I was getting married. Her first question was, 'Does she drink?' -- not meaning, 'Don't marry someone who drinks' but, 'Don't you dare marry someone who doesn't.' "

About three years ago, when his withdrawals were so bad he couldn't sleep and he felt his body was beginning to fall apart, and he knew he was in trouble, he still couldn't ask for help. "First," he says now, "you had to admit you were an alcoholic, which seemed to me a sign of failure and hey, I don't fail at anything.

"Second, and even more troublesome, you had to get somebody to help you. I had never needed anybody to help me and I didn't need help now. And finally, I knew you could never drink again and I thought, my God, there is no life without alcohol."

Finally the fear of death, imminent death, drove him into the program. And even then, McGarry found these things troubling. "The first week there, when they told me I would have to go to AA for the rest of my life, I thought, 'This is hopeless. I can't possibly do that. They're just a bunch of damn drunks. I'm not like them. I'm different.' " ::

"I'm different" is what McGarry said then. "I'm just like them" is what he says today. "Truck driver, bank president, whatever, we're all alike. We all have the same disease." His lanky frame is folded into his chair in his Rockville office. He is chain smoking ("that's the next thing") and coughs a lot, but his intensity is palpable.

"We don't know what it is, we people who go to AA, but whatever it is, it's close to a miracle. We members don't know really why it works, but I know that for the rest of my life I'll need to go to meetings -- frequent meetings. I try to go three times a week. We do what we call 'compare-in.' You hear other people tell their stories or parts of their stories and you say, 'Oh, I remember that.' And you realize how unmanageable and miserable life drinking was, and realizing that there absolutely is no need to drink. I can have as much fun as I used to and I feel better in the morning."

McGarry describes the the last two years as the best of his 57. "I sleep like a baby. My temper is better. My outlook on life is better. My stomach -- I haven't used a Tums or Pepto Bismol for two years.

"I've got time now. I found that if you're a good solid alcoholic, a good part of your weekend is shot. If you get drunk at lunch, it takes all afternoon to sleep it off. Now, I've got the whole afternoon back."

McGarry's wife worried a little at first, he says, that the "fun guy" she married would turn grim and dreary, but it didn't work out that way. "That's sort of miraculous, too, that I recovered without causing her problems," he says. ::

The luck that protected McGarry during his drinking years seems to be following him into his life after alcoholism, because he and his family appear to have made the transition with little difficulty.

This is not often the case. "Too often," says family therapist Emily Marlin, "you think that this is the end. Someone has finally gotten sober, and we're going to live happily every after.

"Sorry folks, but that isn't the way it works."

Marlin, daughter of an alcoholic father herself and author of "Hope: New Choices and Recovery Strategies for Adult Children of Alcoholics," points out that in the family of an alcoholic, "everybody had spent years and years organized around the disease. Now they have to deal with issues that were swept under the rug before because everybody was too busy either denying or taking care of the alcoholic to deal with them."

Among the common issues: Intimacy. "You cannot have an intimate relationship with an active alcoholic. They're not there emotionally. Then, all of a sudden they are there, available and present for the first time in their lives."

Caretaking. All at once the caretaker doesn't need to be the caretaker anymore, so what is he or she going to do when they're not picking somebody off the floor and putting them in bed and calling the boss and saying someone's sick and all that? Competing for responsibility. "The person who recovers suddenly wants to be super responsible, and now he or she is going to manage everything." Anger and guilt. Family members feel angry at the recovered alcoholic because of all the upheaval and then feel guilty about the anger. Isolation. The recovering alcoholic spends more time at AA meetings and with new friends. The spouse can feel left out. "It can be hard for people who have been focusing on the sick person to learn to focus on themselves." ::

Robert McGarry was "a little nervous" when the Montgomery Journal printed the story of his alcoholism. "But," he recalls, "a day or two later, a fellow about 30 came into the hospital and told me, 'I've been hiding this for a long time, but when I saw the article, I thought, gee, if McGarry has guts enough to do it and put it in the paper, I ought to at least have guts enough to do it.'

"The point is," says McGarry, and his Irish eyes blaze, "no matter who you are, you've got a disease and you probably know you've got it. Go get help. Don't be afraid. There is life after alcohol.

"And it's great."