They live with their 6-year-old son in their own home in a prosperous Fairfax community. She is a college-educated, free-lance writer. Her husband has a master's degree and was a highly paid federal employe. Three years ago they opened their own public relations firm. When they leave the house together in the family car, they are the picture of suburban serenity.

Their neighbors would be surprised to know they have been without work for a year and a half, living off savings and going broke. Only three close friends they need for job references know of their plight.

"Most people do not even dream of what we're going through . . . ," the wife says, "and we don't want them to know. It's just too embarrassing when you are well-known in town and had a good income."

In the familiar view of the Washington area as a bastion of federally fueled affluence, immune from the ups and downs of the national economy, this kind of pain and humiliation strikes a discordant note. Since the country found itself in a recession a year and a half ago, however, thousands of families in the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs have had their lives similarly disrupted.

Still, Washington is a city where the illusion of prosperity is hard to dispel.

The signs of the recession's human toll are more subtle here; you have to know where to look.

Court records show increased bankruptcy filings, business failures, mortgage foreclosures and general indebtedness.

Sheriff's sales and public auctions have increased. Social workers and physicians report the emotional costs: increases in suicide, divorce, child abuse and depression that can be tied to the panic and anxieties of the recession.

"In the big industrial centers, the problems are obvious. It's hard to see it here in an area that looks . . . glamorous, but it's just as prevalent," says Dr. Jane Charnas, a social worker at the Family Life Center in Columbia who reports a surge in recession-related family violence and depression.

For the next six days, The Washington Post will describe how hard times have changed the outlook and circumstances of dozens of people in the Washington area.

What emerges from their experience is most of all a sense of loss, of having had something precious--a satisfying job, a long-standing business, some peace of mind or hope for the future--and having seen it slip away.

For the most part, the recession didn't discriminate along class lines.

The hard-core poor found their meager options reduced to the vanishing point. White- and blue-collar workers, small-business owners and professionals lost jobs, savings and homes.

There is James Knight, 35, the unemployed roofer who looks at the homeless on the heating grates and wonders if he won't wind up there, too.

There is Magruder Murray, the D.C. printer who declared bankruptcy and reluctantly closed an 89-year-old family business.

There is the 34-year-old former hotel auditor who has spent the last five months in a public shelter, and the out-of-work car salesman who tried to commit suicide the day after he and his wife received a foreclosure notice on their Gaithersburg town house.

Hundreds of thousands of others have become what statisticians call the lesser victims, families for whom the recession meant cutbacks in work hours, overtime pay and bonuses.

The result in many cases was the gradual diminishment of financial security, and radical changes in how they educate, feed and clothe their families: Public school over private, television instead of movies, bean soup and hotdogs instead of meat, thrift shops instead of department stores.

Of course, there are those in society's upper reaches for whom the recession has meant little more than Martha's Vineyard instead of Paris, and the chance to buy cheap real estate and designer clothes at rock-bottom prices.

But this recession has been unusual in its reach, in the surprise and dismay it caused among its middle-class victims: "first timers" who expected the '80s to be a time of upward mobility instead of a frightening downward slide.

"This class of people just can't cope," says Linda Haspel, a lawyer at Legal Services in Silver Spring who is seeing many "first-timers" seeking help. "It's not like the survivability of those who have been poor forever . . . . " The pressure is only greater, lawyers and social workers say, because the "first-timers" are trying desperately to hide their problems from family and friends.

For many of these people, appealing for help from social service agencies is a new and unsettling experience. "They're totally confused," says Jim Buffington, director of Emergency Housing Assistance for Prince George's County. "They resent our questions and they feel you're prying. Many times, they think they should get more help than you do. They get upset and just give up."

Those in trouble for the first time often do not apply for unemployment or public assistance, according to Buffington and others, in the belief that their situation is temporary. When they finally do seek help, many are desperate and need aid faster than the bureaucracy can move.

"The HUD lady said she cannot help us because I am out of work," says Oswaldo Arroyo, an unemployed building superintendent who is losing the Montgomery County home he saved for 12 years to buy because he cannot find a job to meet the mortgage payments. "This is my government; they are supposed to help me. They are supposed to help me. They say, 'if you want to fight it yourself, go ahead.' To fight it I must have a lawyer. A lawyer costs money. I do not need a lawyer, I need a job."

And that, even under the rosiest economic forecasts, is still a while away. Although some forecasters are cautiously predicting that January will prove to have been the tentative beginning of an economic recovery, the benefits of even the strongest recoveries historically take at least four to five months to trickle down.

For some, that might as well be forever. "I think we're becoming more of a class society than before," says Pat Morgan, a Fairfax mother and marriage counselor. "I think we're going to have the very poor and the very rich."

She expects her children, like most, will have to live with less.

Dr. Louis Kopolow, a Potomac psychiatrist who has studied the effects of economic downturns on mental health, predicts a long-term impact. "The remembrance of this period will stay with Washingtonians," he says. "People are seeing a number of their clients and associates going under. They may be avoiding the terrifying aspects personally, but it is affecting their lives.

NEXT: Life without work