They are Washington's builders, bureaucrats, teachers and cooks, printers, salesmen and clerks. For them the recession has been a depression, a time when dreams darkened and died.

For months they have struggled to stay afloat. But in record numbers they are going under, some declaring bankruptcy, others waiting in quiet desperation for the sheriff's knock and the repossessor's call. "You feel like they'll take your house, they'll take your wife, your kids, they'll take anything," said a bankrupt builder. "That's what bankruptcy means. It's not finances. It's your life."

Last year bankruptcy filings, personal and business, increased throughout the metropolitan area, in some counties by nearly 100 percent. The percentage of loans in foreclosure went up, too, and local sheriff's departments reported a jump in property attachments for personal debts. The number of delinquent credit accounts skyrocketed, and businesses turned over more accounts to collection agencies, and they did it sooner.

In some cases the failure was brought on by loss of a business or a job. Sometimes it took less, "a cut in working hours, or overtime," said Prince George's County attorney Alan Drew. "This isn't the guy who can't manage his finances. These are very proud people who've fended for themselves. Something like this happens, they get behind, and they never catch up."

In secure suburbs and quiet city neighborhoods, the failure is a badge of shame. Those who have experienced it avoid neighbors and grow accustomed to living with the phone disconnected. Many cannot bring themselves to talk about it. "It's too painful," said Carl Phillips, a Manassas businessman, declining to discuss the Chapter 11 reorganization plan he filed to save his plumbing and heating company.

Nationally, Dun and Bradstreet reported a business failure rate of 89 businesses per 10,000 in 1982, higher than any year since 1933. In the Washington area the numbers were up, too. Maryland's failure rate went from 38 per 10,000 in 1979 to 51.2 in 1981. Virginia's nearly tripled.

In the District the number of businesses filing for bankruptcy in 1982 was nine times what it was three years ago. In Fairfax County, the number has doubled since 1980. Personal bankruptcies were even more numerous. Bankruptcy judges, lawyers and trustees reported more filings from "the kind of person we never used to see before."

Not all of the increases can be blamed on the economy. Reform of the federal Bankruptcy Act, increased public acceptance of bankruptcy, and advertising by bankruptcy lawyers are also thought to be factors. Some business failures can be attributed to the record number of businesess started in the late '70s; companies that fail usually do so in the first five years, so some of the current failures are the predictable fallout of those boom years.

The recession's deadly mix of tightened credit and declining consumer demand, however, is thought to be a primary cause of the bankruptcy epidemic. "It's directly proportional to the state of the economy," says Martin V.B. Bostetter, a federal bankruptcy judge in Alexandria. "We tend to see bottom of the barrel here," says Mary Christie Fisher, director of George Washington University Law School's bankruptcy clinic. "Now there are more and more who qualify."

In many cases filing for bankruptcy is a final effort to prevent foreclosure on a home. Nationwide, the percentage of mortgages in foreclosure is the highest since the Mortgage Bankers Association began keeping track in 1953.

In Washington, as in many large cities, the percentage of loans in foreclosure is well above--by 45 percent--the national average, "a good indication," said association analyst Peter Brereton, "that the recession has touched this area." Officials at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's District office report that the number of FHA loans in foreclosure has quadrupled since 1980.

And if people aren't making mortgage payments, chances are they've already stopped paying a range of other bills. Local collection agencies report that accounts are up as creditors turn tardy bills over after two months instead of four. Collecting is harder, however, said one collection agency president. "You can't take money from people who don't have any."

In Arlington, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, sheriff's departments have scrambled to keep up with the increases in attachments and debt notices they have to deliver. Last year Montgomery County served 577 more attachments than in 1981; that's 577 more creditors who tried to seize everything from television sets, furniture, cars or homes to settle overdue bills. Creditors usually tried to settle before a sale, however. "These days," said one mortgage attorney, "you can't even be sure of getting a buyer."

The final indignity for many faltering homeowners has frequently been a mailbox full of letters from "the vultures," real estate speculators who scavenge the foreclosure notices. "The local paper states that you are about to lose your home by foreclosure," wrote one broker to a distraught Prince George's County couple who'd fallen behind after the husband lost his job with the county schools.

"I may be able to help you," the letter continued, "but call me quickly. You have little time left."