WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) _ A hospital program in which alcoholics come and go as outpatients helps them learn to live with their problem, according to one patient, a teacher who says they ''go home at night and face reality.''

The program at St. Mary's Hospital is probably the first at any public hospital in the country and has half the dropout rate of the hospital's traditional inpatient program, officials say.

Alcoholics with families and jobs have trouble leaving home long enough to attend the hospital's 28-day inpatient program, said hospital spokeswoman Peggy Lawlor. ''There's just a very few people who are that isolated who can just disappear (for treatment) without people wondering where they are.''

The program has attracted professionals and skilled trade workers alike.

During a recent session, the teacher, a carpenter and an aircraft engineer, all from Waterbury, enthusiastically discussed the program's advantages. All chose to remain unidentified.

''You get more out of it because you're doing it yourself,'' the engineer said.

Added the teacher, ''You got to learn to live with it on your own and not be secluded in a hospital. You've got to go home at night and face reality.''

The first step toward treatment comes when patients admit themselves to the emergency room or their private doctor, said Dr. Mark L. Kraus, program medical director. After a physical examination and laboratory testing, a patient is screened to determine whether inpatient or outpatient treatment is best.

The ambulatory treatment continues with about seven days of intensive therapy. From 8 a.m. to noon each day, the patient undergoes more physical examinations, participates in group discussions with an Alcoholics Anonymous representative, views films on alcoholism and receives private counseling.

Vitamin supplements and drugs that sedate the alcoholic during the first days of withdrawal are dispensed only on a day-to-day basis, Kraus said.

Some outpatients take a week off from work for the seven days of therapy. For those who do not, employers are often encouraging and allow the patient to complete work during off-hours, said Samuel R. Segal, program director.

Group counseling is recommended after outpatient treatment ends.

''We're not just here to put a Band-Aid on an acute episode but to maintain sobriety,'' Segal said. ''Patients used to constantly sign themselves out of the inpatient program because they forgot they left the house unlocked or the dog at home when they came to the emergency room.''

The outpatients realize the expense, futility and danger of drowning their lives in liquor, but they have the option of testing their willpower almost immediately.

''When I drove, I wouldn't think in terms of how many miles, I'd think in terms of how many beers it would take to get there,'' the carpenter said. ''Now that I'm sober, I realize how dangerous that was.''

The engineer said his alcoholism hit home when the plans he used to assemble aircraft became increasingly blurred. ''I started thinking that if that 'copter ever came down, it would be my fault. That would be hard to live with.''

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Connecticut, the state's largest health insurer, is reimbursing patients in the program on a one-year test basis to evaluate its cost and effectiveness for possible statewide expansion.

But St. Mary's officials said the outpatient program would continue even without insurer support because it seems to be a more sensible way to treat the illness and its stigma.