Marie and Jack are alcholics, and two of the reasons the State of Maryland and Montgomery and Prince George's Counties have named alcoholism as one of their major health problems.

The state's health planning agency, citing an estimated 250,000 problem drinkers in Maryland and the lack of coordinated programs to help them, has declared alcoholism to be the agency's top health priority.

Montgomery County has more than 45,000 problem drinkers, or about 8 per cent of the county's population, accordig to a recent county health department study. Prince George's officials estimate that about 10 per cent of their county's population -- or about 67,000 people -- have chronic difficulties with liquor.

If each alcoholic lives or works with an average of four other people, a conservative figure that experts often use, that means alcoholism directly touches the lives of almost a third of the total population of each county.

Alcoholism is no respecter of social status or income levels and many who fall victim to its ravages are professionals. They live in comfortable homes and send their children to good schools.

Eventually, like Jack, most will hit rock bottom.

Jack's typical day for years: Appointments in the morning at which he sometimes showed up drunk. A long, booze-filled lunch with fellow lawyers. Then in the afternoon, a marathon gin rummy game at the Elks Club (15 glasses of scotch were usual) or a bull session around the Men's Grill at the country club.

The only exceptions were the days when he went to court.

"I loved trial work," Jack said, "and I always knew enough to stay dry for that."

Jack, slightly balding at age 53, was what expert term a "functioning alchoholic." Until the early 1970s, he was able to earn $80,000 annually. His wife Claire was also a heavy drinker, but when the couple went to parties, they drank no more than most of their friends.

Many people -- including Jack when he was younger -- are alcohol abusers. They get smashed on Saturday nights or at weekday happy hours. Jack is now an alcoholic; he cannot control his drinking except by stopping entirely.

"I started drinking in high school on a New Year's Eve," he said. "But I believe if it hadn't happened then, it would have been some other time."

He hasn't had a drink since December, he says, and he feels great about it. But there's a nervousness about him, too. It shows as he grips his chair or toys with a pencil as he talks about his disease, or as he chain smokes Kents.

"I know I'm sober now," he said. "I don't know what will happen tomorrow."

Hiw law partners dissolved their joint practice in 1973, when they began receiving complaints from clients that Jack was neglecting them. After that, Jack set up his own individual practice.

"It was a vicious cycle," he sighed. "I'd be drunk and forget my duties.My clients would hound me. I'd feel guilty, or persecuted, so I'd drink some more."

He made up some of their losses with his own money -- more than $100,000 worth. But with two houses and an expensive suburban lifestyle to maintain, not to mention his drinking habit, he ran out of money.

That's when he stole from a client's estate. He had planned to return the money, but he got caught.

Jack stayed dry for a few weeks last August -- for the first time in 35 years -- when he and his wife, who lives and works at the family house in Delaware, took their two youngest children to college.

"My wife had come back (to Silver Spring) and found me in the basement, dirty and drunk," he said. "By then I had stopped working entirely and collectors were calling me constantly. I went to a doctor and thought I'd stop drinking on my own."

But on the way home from the University of Delaware he stopped at a bar on Rte. 40. After that, he continued to drink in the Silver Spring basement for four more months.

In December, however, soon to be placed on trial for theft, Jack stopped again. "A friend was representing me," he said. "He told me that if I came into court drunk, I didn't stand a chance."

Jack was sober for a month when he realized that his new life wasn't going to be problem-free.

"I needed money," he said. "I was ashamed to find a job. How could I say to someone, 'Hire me. I'm an alcoholic, I've been disbarred and I'm a thief."

He ended up working for three days as a bill collector, "knocking on doors of deadbeats like me for $5 an hour."

That lasted three days. Then one of his former law partners told him that a local builder, himself a recovering alcoholic, would be willing to hire him to do in-house legal work.

"I didn't keep anything back when I went for that job," he said. "And I'm making a lot less than I ever did. But I needed the work and consider myself lucky."

His boss, an alcoholic who has been sober for 18 years, attached a condition to Jack's employment: he had to attend Alchoholics Anonymous meetings. The first few weeks, Jack said, his boss took him to a different meeting every night.

Like most other AA members, Jack calls himself a recovering alcoholic. He will not say "recovering alcoholic. He will say "recovered" or cured." He attends noon meetings near his new office in downtown Washington, where catchy slogans like "live every day at a time" and "easy does it" mingle with straight talk about the physical and mental effects of the disease. m

"Sure, some of the phrases are corny," conceded Jack. "And I haven't spent a lot of time intellectualizing about why it works. The only thing of moment is that AA keeps me sober."

In May he received a three-year suspended prison sentence, with a requirement that he continue with the AA, and that he undertake community service projects, at that time, including helping other drinkers.

He has lost 55 pounds since then. He plays bridge, takes a walk every morning and dates a woman who is also an alcoholic.

But all is not rosy. He is still saddled with debt. His son, the only boy in a family of four children, "smokes pot and generally doesn't communicate at all.

"Maybe it's my fault," he said, in a flat voice. "I have to live with the fact that for most of my children's lives, I was under the influence."

Jack and his wife Claire are about to be divorced.

"She waited until the criminal charges were worked out," he said. "There's no rancor. But how that I'm sober, she wanted to know what I planned to do about our marriage.

"She's in Delaware, I'm here," he continued. "If I moved there, I cannot say what would happen. I know the way I'm living now, I don't drink."

He never knows if he might start drinking again.

"I was the sick husband of a sick husband of a sick alcoholic," says Joe, looking over at his wife Marie. The two sit in identical chairs in their White Oak living room, under paintings of dark landscapes and embossed brass plates. Three of their four children daughters are playing elsewhere in the house and wander into the room occasionally.

Only the youngest, who's 5, has always had a sober mother.

Marie started drinking heavily soon after their first daughter was born 14 year ago, and stopped about eight years later.

She doesn't remember much of that time, because she was almost continuously blacked out, a term alcoholics use for a period when they are fully conscious but can't remember anything afterwards.

She has no memory of her second daughter, now 8, from the time she was 6 months old until her third birthday.

"If Joe woke up angry, I figured we had fought the night before," she said. "If my children were hiding, I must have been acting weird and strange to them. But I didn't know."

As a homemaker, Marie was alone with her children and her liquor most of the day.

"I only had my husband to comment on my boozing," she said. "And I just shut him off and kept on."

Joe, an engineer, is an earnest-looking man with a ruddy face and a deep laugh. He says he spent years cajoling, threatening and sweet-talking his wife, trying to get her to stop drinking.

"I started acting as weird and strange as Marie did," he said ruefully. "And I didn't even have the liquor to help relieve the pain."

Like his wife, Joe became irritable, combative and withdrawn from friends.

The couple married young -- she was 18, he was 21 -- which Marie believes contributed to her drinking.

"I never grew up," she said, with a shrill laugh. "I went from my parents' arms to Joe's.

"I don't blame him, or anybody," she added quickly. "But when I felt like I was losing control, I had the first drinks that triggered off the disease in me."

Within a few months in 1966, the couple moved, Marie became pregnant and stopped working and her father died.

Home with her infant, she remembered the relaxation she had felt when, as a bank teller, she went out with friends for a drink after work.

"I never drank openly in front of Joe," she said. "I would hide bottles every place in the house. When he'd come home, I'd try to look like I spent a nice domestic day."

"But," Joe adds, "by the end of 1968, I knew Marie had a drinking problem. She used to be agreeable, even meek. She had become surly and depressed.

"Every day I would try a different approach. I'd think, 'Today I'll be sweet.' Or loving. Or stern. Nothing worked and we fought all the time."

By 1972 they had moved again and had stopped socializing.

"Our only friends were also heavy drinders," Marie said. "That was my criteria for friends-if they didn't drink, I didn't like them."

Marie was drinking heaviest when she was pregnant with her third daughter, who is now 6 1/2.

"She cried for 18 straight months and she's still high-strung," Marie said of her child. "I must live with the fact that my drinking contributed to that."

The family physician suggested that Marie see a psychiatrist.

"I brought the kids to the doctor all the time. It helped relieve my guilt as a bad mother, by at least taking care of them when they were sick.

"My daughter didn't have pneumonia, as I had feared," she continued. "But (the doctor) took one look at me and said 'You're drunk.' When the voice of authority told me to see a shrink, I did."

Marie went to the Colmac Clinic, a private out-patient facility in Silver Spring. "I went because of him, not because I wanted to go," she remembered. "I thought I'd go, solve a few emotional problems and then drink like a lady."

Marie stopped drinking for five months.

But, she said, "Nothing had changed. I was going to a therapist and not drinking.But I had no friends, no confidence. One day I just decided to drink again."

Her "relapse," as she calls it, lasted 2 1/2 months. She drank from early morning until she collapsed at night and, for the first time, started taking pills, too.

On Christmas Eve 1974, her husband and daughter left the house and went to an AL-Anon meeting -- a group for the relatives of alcoholics -- when she sat home and drank. Shortly after, when she realized they could live without her if she did not straighten up, she was ready to return to treatment.

"I went to the clinic for almost three years after that," she said. "I must have set a record; most people go for about a year. But I didn't feel comfortable with AA until then, and knew I had to do something."

Marie now attends one or two AA meetings a week. "I didn't take to them," she says of the organization. "I heard all this stuff about warmth and friendliness, but I didn't feel it there for a long time."

Joe, who went to family sessions with Marie at the Colmac clinic, goes to AL-Anon meetings.

"I was a mess," he said. "I had a martyr complex -- beating myself on the chest and asking why I was saddled with this burden. AL-Anon teaches emotional detachment, that I can't let Marie bring me down."

"The girls know about our meetings," Marie said, as the youngest walks in for help buttoning her pajamas. "They know the word 'drunk,' and that mommy can't drink because she gets drunk."

"We don't want to make them moral crusaders against liquor," Joe added. "We want them to know the difference between a drink when you feel like it and alcoholism."

"They don't fully understand it all," she says. "But, then again, neither do we."