For the first time since early April, former American University president Richard Berendzen put on a suit last week and went downtown.

On the sidewalk, he said in an interview yesterday, he was approached by a man he didn't know who grasped his hand and said: "I'm proud of somebody in this community who says, 'I'm sorry. I'm guilty' -- who is forthright."

The man pulled out a business card, and, suddenly, Berendzen realized that he could not reciprocate the simple courtesy. "I thought, Jeez, well, I've got my old cards. . . .

"You have to adjust to that. It's very odd."

It has been two months since Berendzen resigned from the university he led for a decade amid a police investigation of obscene telephone calls he had placed from his office.

During that time, he has spent 3 1/2 weeks as a patient in a psychiatric unit of Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has pleaded guilty in Fairfax County General District Court to two charges of making the phone calls to a woman who ran a day-care service. The woman, Susan Allen, said he graphically discussed fantasized sexual encounters with children.

Now he has come home, to a life devoid of the 100-hour work weeks, the speechifying and the glittering social circuit that became a trademark of his 30-year career.

He has shied from reporters, abandoning a longstanding penchant for being quoted. But he granted a two-hour interview at the expansive, university-owned house in Northwest that he and his wife, Gail, are preparing to leave.

He said his main task now is healing himself.

"You know, you are no longer president, you are no longer in this house where you've lived for 10 years . . . you're no longer in an office with a secretary, no longer -- all the miscellany -- the business cards.

"You go from the hard-driving schedule, which was maybe too much, to suddenly no schedule."

He said he has learned from his weeks in the Baltimore hospital and the empty days afterward. Berendzen's psychiatrists have interpreted the compulsive telephone calls over two years as an exploration of severe sexual and emotional abuse as a child. "I could understand a quasar 15 billion light years away, but I couldn't understand the boy that's now within the man."

The new outlines of his life are forming slowly. He said he and his wife plan to stay in the Washington area. They are looking for an apartment to buy and intend to move by the end of the summer.

For the time being, he said, he plans to remain as a tenured physics professor at AU and to take a sabbatical for the coming year. A university spokeswoman said that Berendzen had not officially discussed his faculty status with the university.

There have been overtures from acquaintances about prospects in business, consulting, and writing, and a contact from a publisher soliciting his help in a book on child abuse. "All just speculation at this point," he said.

Berendzen's world began to change April 7, when a small delegation of AU trustees and the university's general counsel informed him that he was being investigated by the Fairfax police -- something he said he had not known.

Initially, he said, they discussed a temporary leave but the trustees indicated that might be insufficient. "I said, look you haven't said the word, but I am willing to resign."

He announced his departure the next day, attributing his abrupt decision to exhaustion. "The trustees I met with suggested I cite something like that. We were trying to shield the university and me." In retrospect, he said, it was "naive" to have thought the real explanation would remain hidden.

Afterward, he said, he put aside a longstanding mistrust of psychiatry and made an appointment at Johns Hopkins.

His admission was so quiet, he said, that even one of his two daughters did not know his whereabouts for a time. To keep reporters away, he said, the hospital posted 24-hour security guards.

In his diagnosis and treatment, Berendzen said, "they were unmerciful with me. I broke into tears. It didn't matter. I would vomit. It didn't matter. They were not cruel, but they were unrelenting."

One day, he found himself seated in the center of a circle of 25 psychiatrists. "It was like a surgeon with a knife, and they just cut. I thought, 'I'm not going to survive this.' Now, I had a PhD oral exam some years ago and that was an experience, but not like this."

His doctors also required him to discuss his abuse with his wife for the first time.

But perhaps most unexpected, he said, was a sense of commonality with other patients who had been abused as children. They included "a number who were definitely not professionals. . . . I was playing Ping-Pong with people I would not normally meet -- or want to meet. . . . It didn't matter. Our feelings were amazingly similar. It gave me chills."

After he left May 4, he said, he and his wife rotated among friends' houses for several days to avoid reporters.

To occupy himself while waiting for his May 23 court appearance, he said, "I read Marcus Aurelius eight or 10 times. I read about half the {Encyclopedia} Britannica." And, he said, he did "a lot of thinking and talking to my wife . . . sort of surveying the wreckage and hoping the university was going to {recover}."

He still visits Hopkins weekly, he said, and he finds sleep elusive many nights.

"One of the hardest days I had was commencement day. I decided I was going to stay in the house that day, but I took the trash out, and as I did I noticed going down the sidewalk here a family, and the boy had his academic gown over his arm. You know, it's the symbols. I helped to design the gown."

For a chronic workaholic, the last two months have taught new values. "I learned you can cram two lives into one lifetime, but neither one is worth living."