SINCE I BEGAN WRITING THIS COLUMN 10 months ago, I occasionally find myself dreaming about it. Of course, most of the time I don't use the material I dream -- I'm saving that for my novel. Today's column is an exception; it's one I wrote in my sleep last night. Let me know if you like it better than the ones I write while I'm awake.

The Dream:

I am in a psychoanalyst's office, and as I rise from the couch to leave, I drop my pocketbook. Its entire contents spill out onto the carpet. At that moment, an ABC camera crew arrives from "PrimeTime Live" to do an investigative piece on what I carry in my purse.

I watch in horror as my analyst -- who looks just like Sam Donaldson -- gets down on the floor and holds up each item before the camera, shouting out to the world the humiliating truth about my life:

"One copy of 'Thin Thighs in 30 Days'! A roll of Tums covered with fuzz! A fan letter to Jackie Collins! A small wedge of Velveeta cheese! A cassette tape of 'Mantovani Plays Mantovani!' A prescription for Retin-A! Several photographs of two cats named Max and Fluffy dressed in doll's clothing! A videocassette of Mike Dukakis' explaining the Massachusetts Miracle with a note that says, 'Alice, thanks for all your help. The Duke.' An overdue American Express bill! A small container of . . ."

I wake up screaming.

The dream reflects, of course, one of womankind's deepest fears: that we will find ourselves in some unexpected situation where our most intimate secrets will be revealed to strangers through the contents in our handbags.

Granted, there may be a few women in the world whose pocketbooks are in perfect order -- Nancy Reagan and Sandra Day O'Connor spring to mind as possibilities -- but throughout history most women have been plagued by the condition known as: Pocketbook Disorder Syndrome (hereafter referred to as PDS).

I leave it to the psychologists and geneticists to fight out the old Nature vs. Nurture battle when it comes to the origins of PDS. All I know is that as young girls we start out symptom-free.

A typical case history might go like this: You get your first pocketbook at age 2. You carry it to church with a handkerchief inside it. Somewhere at about age 6 you put a pack of chewing gum in with the handkerchief. At 10 or thereabouts, you add a key and a comb. The quantum leap, as best I can determine it, comes with adolescence.

I am told it is not unusual for the average 15-year-old girl to carry in her pocketbook the following items: a blow-dryer, five lipsticks, two blushers, a hairbrush, comb, mousse, hair spray, a collection of cassette tapes, chewing gum, breath mints, bottles of Midol, Tylenol and Excedrin, an assorted selection of fruit and yogurt, moisturizing sunscreen, a wallet, keys, address book, a framed photograph of The Boyfriend, pens, pencils and a pocket calculator.

As a woman grows older, the symptoms of PDS only escalate. I have a friend who carries salads in her pocketbook every day. Another friend has been known to carry her cat in her pocketbook. A woman I know quite well never goes anywhere without a copy of a rather hefty book of poetry by Wallace Stevens.

In extreme cases such as these, some women will attempt to deal with the problem by putting several small pocketbooks inside a large pocketbook. Although promising at first, this approach to order usually breaks down quickly, resulting in a rebound effect and even greater disorder as the small pocketbooks each begin to become as disordered as the main bag.

I am told, although not by very reliable sources, of a new kind of group therapy aimed at dealing with PDS. It's called Embarrassed Straight! The therapeutic component kicks in when the PDS member is suddenly confronted in a public place -- on the job, for instance, in front of her colleagues or in the supermarket checkout line -- and forced to empty the contents of her purse.

I'm also told that preliminary research on this subject tends to single out owners of designer bags as among the worst offenders. (In tests done on off-duty lab mice, however, those mice assigned Gucci bags scored far better than the control-group mice given non-designer bags.)

Which reminds me: Did I ever tell you about the time I dreamed I was taken hostage by designer Ralph Lauren for wearing a polo shirt not designed by him? But that's another column.

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