A mural, just completed at the D.C. Male Alcohol Detoxification Center, is designed to have the impact of a cold shower.

"We want reforming alcoholics to have a good look at themselves," said Wesley L. Branch, director of the center, at 619 N St. NW.

That is why the 18-by-26-foot mural, which dominates the center's multi-purpose room, shows the faces and figures of men and women, young and old. It makes a particularly strong statement about both abusers and victims by concentrating on the figures of drunks and forlorn children.

With its light blue background, the mural takes a universal approach to the problem of alcoholism. It shows a woman holding a child, an elderly man seated at a chair and a black man doing heavy labor.

The mural is the creation of Sandra Philpott, a 37-year-old artist who finished it in about a month.

Philpott, a mother of seven who lives in Takoma Park, Md., was an art student at the University of Maryland when she volunteered for the project.

She has learned a lot about alcoholics since the project began. "I found life is not easy for people in here. It is a struggle. It is not a pleasant thing."

The crucial element in the mural's design, she said, was characterizing the mission of the detox center. The center, which began 13 years ago, was designed to give alcohol abusers an alternative to jail. It treats alcoholism as a disease and provides medical supervision and counseling, said Branch.

The mural uses the image of a man involved in heavy labor to show the mission of the center. "I wanted to show that people had to work to solve their problems," said Philpott.

Originally, she and Branch wanted to bring a camera into the community and capture scenes from the lives of alcoholics, such as men standing near burning garbage cans, but the center's staff vetoed the idea because it was too depressing.

Once work began on the mural, however, everyone got involved. Philpott said patients and maintenance men helped by painting large areas that only required color.

When the project was completed, patients said they could identify with the faces. Branch said one man who saw the mural decided to seek treatment for alcoholism because he wanted to see his children again. "He looked up at the mural and felt that one of those children looked like his own."

Philpott said there was only one moment when painting had to stop briefly. "I was standing on top of the ladder and this patient was below me cleaning the floor. I looked down and realized he only had a piece of cloth covering his front . . . I realized I was an uptight suburbanite and climbed down the ladder."

After a quick conference with administrators, the patient returned with more clothes and Philpott returned to her mural.

Most of the time, however, Philpott said, she felt very close to the patients.

"I would bring cigarettes, newspapers and novels. Soon I realized I was getting too close to them and their problems. I had to set a date to leave," she said.

The project, which cost $200 for paint and supplies, was completed just before Christmas.

Philpott said the detox center is just the beginning for her mural painting.

She hopes other institutions will use this concept to improve the surroundings for people needing help.