At first glance, the people packed in an upstairs room of a suburban hospital appear to have little in common. Dressed in business suits, jeans and jogging outfits, some sit with their legs and arms crossed tightly, visibly less comfortable than others freely helping themselves to coffee at the back of the room.

But when the group is asked if anyone is attending the meeting for the first time, and a stylishly dressed woman in her 50's raises her hand tentatively, the tie that binds them becomes clear."My name is Elaine," the woman says cheerfully, her voice in contras t to slightly shaking hands. "I am a co-dependent."

With its first San Fernando Valley meeting held last December at Coldwater Canyon Hospital's LifePlus Institute, Co-dependents Anonymous (CODA) is believed to be the newest of numerous anonymous self-help programs, all of which use the amazingly successful 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as their foundation for recovery.

And it's quite a list of 12-step programs.

"There is Debtors Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Phobics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Parents Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Emotional Health Anonymous, Neurotics Anonymous, Writers Anonymous and even Artists Anonymous," said Eve Lee, a referral specialist for the California Self-Help Center, a UCLA-administered referral service funded by the state Department of Mental Health. Each month, the center puts hundreds of callers in touch with nearly 4,000 support groups nationwide.

"These are not frivolous groups; they are taken very seriously," Lee said, adding that, while they borrow certain principles, they are not affiliated with AA.

uring the 90-minute CODA meeting, group members took turns discussing a cycle of addiction many said has followed them most of their lives.

"Co-dependency in the (substance-abuse) treatment field is the hot issue now." said Jay Cavanaugh, president of the board of directors for Interagency Drug Abuse Recovery Programs (IADARP), a non-profit organization with four outpatient substance-abuse clinics in the Los Angeles area.

"There is a growing understanding that people can be emotionally dependent on a lot of things--drugs, alcohol or other people--and that co-dependents can be just as ill (as the alcoholic), but not drink. And in the same way that alcoholics deny they have a problem," Cavanaugh added, "co-dependents often just as vehemently deny they are hooked on a toxic relationship."

What is the growing attraction to 12-step programs of recovery? Many people say it is a combination of the programs' filling a spiritual void, coupled with increased public awareness of the groups' existence.

Others say the groups meet an increasing social need.

"People have always had problems, because life is life. But in the past, they were able to talk about those problems with aunts or uncles, or go to other places--like churck--for help," Cavanaugh said. "The growth of groups like CODA, ACA(Adult Children of Alcoholics), Al-Anon and other groups of these kinds is a real sign that people aren't going where they used to go," he said.

"I really think they (the groups) have become an extended family and extended religion of our times."

Donald E. Miller, an associate professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Southern California's school of religion, agreed. Theologians, philosophers and sociologists continue to debate what constitutes a religion, Miller said, but AA and other 12-step programs appear to fit the three generally agreed-upon criteria of having a belief system, rituals and a community of believers.

"I strongly suspect that AA (and other 12-step programs), in addition to dealing with a specific behavorial problem such as alcohol, also provides many people with a strong sense of love, acceptance, community and support, which are aspects that have always been present in strong, growing religions," Miller said.

"If conventional religions aren't meeting those basic human needs," Miller added, "movements emerge that, whether they call themselves a religion or not, functionally meet those needs."

In fact, most members of 12-step programs do not view the groups as a religion and are quick to point out that all 12-step programs are non-denominational. Members of the groups focus on developing a conscious contact with a greater power than themselves--whether that is the group itself or a god of their own understanding--and on being of service to others.

Said one 22-year member of AA: "There's nothing in the program that says you have to believe in God (to recover). You just have to believe that you are not God."

Filling a spiritual or religious void, however, may not be the only reason 12-step groups have burgeoned in recent years. Some substance-abuse treatment professionals point to a complex combination of social factors that has turned more and more people into "12-step candidates."

"I don't think there is one simple aspect, but I think that society as a whole is in trouble," said Tom Kenny, director of the Motion Picture and Television Fund's substance-abuse program and an instrumental figure in the founding of Cocaine Anonymous in 1982.

Kenny cited as significant factors the national drug epidemic, increasing single-parent families, peer pressure, a glamorized view of alcohol and drugs on TV, lack of jobs and "people feeling cheated out of life." But perhaps more important, Kenny said, is a "have-it-all-now" message from society that eventually crashes down around the lives of chemically or emotionally dependent people.

"Most people nowadays don't want to work for long-term happiness. They want to feel good now," Kenny said. "People in 12-step programs learn that they have to take it one day at a time and start living life on life's terms."

Ann Wilson Schaef, author of "When Society Becomes an Addict" and most recently of "The Addictive Organization," also believes that many aspects of society are conducive to addiction and compulsiveness--but says that the growing number of people in 12-step programs is having a slow byt steady effect on a collective attitude toward recovery.

Many years ago, identifying one-self as a being in a program of recovery would have carried with it a definite social stigma, Schaef said, whereas today acceptance and understanding are growing.

"It seems that a lot more people are hurting from addictive diseases, whether it's chemical dependency or workaholism, and the more people who are willing to say that they are recovering, the more it gives others the possibility of recovering," said Schaef, an organizational consultant.

In her latest book, Schaef identified what she says are many ways in which corporations themselves function like an addictive substance for employees, often encouraging them to have an addictive relationship with their work by thriving on crises, denying and avoiding problems or manipulating events to maintain the status quo.

In seminars and lectures she has held throughout the country, Schaef said, she has encouraged major corporations to adopt the 12 steps of AA into their business plans.

While declining to cite specific names, Schaef said many corporations were rreceptive to the idea.

"One of the things that has come as such a surprise to me is that there are so many recovering people in the world who are attending 12-step programs. Some of those recovering people are CEO's" she said.

Considering the large number of anonymous groups, it is ironic that the question of anonymity itself has become an issue of debate within many 12-step programs. With people like former first lady Betty Ford discussing her bout with prescription drug abuse and subsequent involvement with AA, to actress Suzanne Somers recounting in a recently published book how she grew up with an alcoholic father and later joined ACA, to tell or not to tell has become a hot issue in 12-step circles.

"It's not easy telling this stuff," said Somers of her dicision to go public with her story, "but I know there are little girls out there hiding in their closets and adult children of alcoholics who don't know what normal is."

Some members of 12-step programs applaud such candor.

"I think that it takes tremendous courage to go forward. If you are a public figure, you have the capacity to touch thousands of lives and let people know there isn't a stigma to recovery anymore," said Denise C., a volunteer at ACA's Van Nuys office. "I do a lot of work in the community, and I have brought a lot of people into the program by sharing my own experience, strength and hope with them honestly."

Charles Jurgensen, a recovering alcoholic in Florham Park, N. J., says that being open about his own past has enabled him to help other recovering alcoholics in a unique way. Five years ago, after he had been sober for two years, Jurgensen formed an insurance company called the Renaissance Group, which provides insurance to recovering alcoholics and addicts who have been members of a 12-step program for at least two years.

"They aren't afraid to come to us because we divulge our own background. It enables then to be honest with us without penalty or fear of not being insured," Jurgensen said. to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.