When Stuart Markowitz, the stressed-out lawyer on the popular television show "L.A. Law," suffered a heart attack earlier this season, Ann Kelsey, his wife, was the one who freaked out. During Stuart's recuperation, Kelsey so overprotected him that he turned to a younger woman.

"That is the kind of thing that happens all the time," said Melanie Flossman, a Washington area clinical social worker. The problem, according to Flossman, is that there is very little information and support available to help spouses deal with a heart attack. At the beginning, when the patient's life is at stake, the lack is not so noticeable.

But after a family has spent weeks or months trying to adjust to new lifestyles, diets, drugs and an uncertain future, the lack of support is glaring.

Flossman became a cardiac spouse last summer and found the experience harrowing and lonely. To rectify the problem, she has called on her own professional training and, with the assistance of cardiologists and psychiatrists, is starting a support group this month for the wives and husbands of heart attack patients.

Flossman said that one of the chief problems couples typically confront is that the husband deeply resents the wife's overprotectiveness, even though it may be her way of managing her anxieties about his health.

She and her husband experienced that, she recalled. "Everytime he walked out the door, I asked him if he had his medicine . . . I was ready to change our whole diet, but of course he wasn't the least bit interested in doing any of that."

Frustrated and frightened, Flossman knew she needed help. She attended a support group meeting at the hospital where her husband was a patient.

"Everybody was really sort of geared to the patient," she said.

"There were a lot of spouses there, but nobody and nothing really there to help the spouse with her (or his) anger, fear, frustration."

At one point, when her husband was in the hospital and his condition was uncertain, she finally burst into tears. Flossman recalled that one of the cardiac care nurses came over, "put her arm around my shoulder, and I thought she was going to take me into a room and comfort me and all she said was, 'Now look, honey, you've got to get ahold of yourself. This isn't good for your husband.' And I wanted to wail, 'But what about me?' "

Rhoda Levin, a Minneapolis social worker and psychotherapist, became a cardiac spouse in 1981. Her experience was similar to Flossman's. "Hospitals are not good to us," she said. "They don't give us information or {psychiatric} liaison."

Levin described her experiences and advice for cardiac families -- children as well as spouses -- in her book, "Heartmates."

Her program is recorded on a series of videotapes designed to be used in support groups. It is frank and unsparing. "Although you don't have heart disease, every part of you is vulnerable to the cardiac crisis," she writes.

"The myth is that everything will be the same as it was. The truth is that {italics hers} nothing will ever be the same again."

It is not news to the medical community that care givers or spouses of cardiac patients have problems. Studies performed during the past 15 years in Britain, Germany, Canada and the U.S. suggest that spouses can encounter major problems with anxiety, depression and anger. Other natural responses include "infantilizing" the patient, fear of sex and an assortment of more or less serious concerns with their own physical health. But most of these studies focus primarily on the cardiac subjects themselves: How does the state of the spouse affect the recovery of the patient?

One exception was a study of 82 wives of men who had suffered a first heart attack, which showed that after 14 months, the wives had "substantial and persistent psychological symptoms . . ."

The authors of that study, published in 1978 in the British Medical Journal, proposed that "wives of patients with myocardial infarction should have more practical help and advice during the hospital period, and the whole family should be given advice and help throughout the convalescence."

With more than 1 million cardiac families each year, Levin estimates that there are now probably more than 10 million cardiac spouses. Because men have heart attacks at about four times the rate of women, most of these spouses are female. "We don't prepare the spouse or support her," Flossman observed. "Loving appreciation for all that she's done gradually diminishes as the patient gets caught in the web of his own self-doubts."

Candid discussions of feelings are rare. Both Flossman and Levin have had patients who tell them they don't "pick fights" because "he might get sick."

And both have had patients echo their own experiences of lying awake at night to make sure their husbands were still breathing.

Flossman's eight-week course will begin with a session entitled,"Going Home: What to Expect." That is to be followed by weekly lectures from cardiologists and psychiatrists, discussions about drugs and mood; sexuality; diet; stress and smoking, and letting go of fear -- the key to family recovery from a heart attack.

"Indeed," Levin said, "as I lecture around the country, the most often asked question is, 'When does the fear end?'

"I can only tell them that a few months ago -- a decade after my husband's heart attack -- he was out playing golf. I got a phone call, and a strange woman's voice said, 'Mrs. Levin? I'm calling from the golf club . . .' "

Levin said that in the next second her own heart stopped and she thought: "Oh my God, he's had another attack; he's dead. Where are the kids? How will I tell his mother?"

Then the voice continued, "We're calling to see if you and your husband would like to join our bowling league." She recalled, "I fell back into my chair drained and exhausted, and I realized that the fear was always there, just below the surface.

"Yes, it scars over some and we're less aware of it, but we're always prepared," she said. "And that's part of the wound we'll always have."More Information

Support program: Northern Virginia Counseling Center (703) 352-2500.

"Heartmates" videotapes, instruction manual, book, Rhoda Levin, P.O. Box 16202, Minneapolis, Minn. 55416.