For Diana Hollander, the bottom came in the fall of 2001, after 21/2 years of struggle and uncertainty. Along the way, there were signposts: The seizure on the side of busy Seven Locks Road, a moment that made it clear that driving was no longer an option. The two attacks in Aspen, on back-to-back days, an incident so rattling that a ski vacation was canceled, flights immediately booked for home. The one in the mall, when she recovered only to face the horrified stares of strangers, her insides roiling with shame.
By October 2001, the seizures had become so unpredictable, so unnerving, that the worst happened: Hollander lost the job that she loved.
And so she went to bed. In the house in the small cul-de-sac in Potomac, she lay there, day after day, week after week, and wondered if this was what her life would be now: homebound, unable to drive, too embarrassed -- and afraid -- to go out in public, incapable of holding a job, not even allowed to take a bath alone.
She was 33 years old. Ever since her mid-twenties, she had been the signature voice of classical music in the District, the midday host at WGMS-FM (Classical 103.5), the top-rated commercial classical station in the country with 450,000 listeners a week. Listeners loved her. She was smart but not condescending, effervescent without being fluffy, a perfect accompaniment to the music she played.
"There's a sparkle in her voice -- she presents such a bright sound on the radio," says Jim Allison, the WGMS program director. "She knows classical music very well and she knows the arts very well, and she fit right in, being accessible to listeners."
Then the epilepsy struck. It came out of nowhere -- Hollander had no family history, no earlier problems with seizures, nothing that would predict that one day she would fall on the floor of her radio studio, her body jerking and contracting, her co-workers stunned. It was May 8, 1998, the date of her first seizure. The next six years would be filled with more seizures, more fears, more tests and exams and medications. She would dip into a deep depression, certain her life as she had known it was over.
"I was 30 years old, at the height of my career," says Hollander. "I loved my job. And, yes, I would go places and be recognized. You get spoiled a little bit. And then everything was gone. So, yes, it was a long fall."
And, it turns out, a long climb back. On June 1, Hollander returns to the studio at WGMS, and returns to her old time slot -- the 10 a.m.-3 p.m. show that she describes, with both affection and possessiveness, as "mine." For the past two years, as she has slowly gained more control over her epilepsy, Hollander has been working for WGMS out of a studio in her basement. To her, this is returning to the "big time."
"It was something I never imagined would be possible," she says. "I loved something so much, and I thought I had lost it forever, and that was heartbreaking."
Hollander was born in New York, the child of immigrant parents, her father from Germany, her mother from Austria. Her great-grandfather Gustav Hollaender was a well-known violinist who helmed the Stern Conservatory in Berlin. His brother, Victor Hollaender, was a famous conductor; Victor's son, Friedrich Hollaender, was a famous composer of cabaret music, who penned songs for Marlene Dietrich.
Classical music was woven through Hollander's childhood. She learned to play the piano, the recorder, the clarinet, the oboe. She attended the international school at the United Nations -- her father, Peter Hollander, was a filmmaker who worked for the U.N. -- and learned to speak both German and French. She knew from a young age the correct way to pronounce Wagner.
After studying theater at Mount Holyoke College, Hollander moved to Washington to work for the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. She made some friends at WGMS, who encouraged her to audition for an opening. Allison heard the sparkle in her voice -- her nickname at the station is "Bubbles" -- and she was hired. After a year and a half working the overnight shift, the coveted midday slot opened, and Hollander found her home.
And she was happy. She lived in an apartment in Adams Morgan, had great friends, adored her job, remained extremely close to her family.
She didn't even know what epilepsy was.
After the first seizure, Hollander was taken by ambulance to Suburban Hospital. No one said the word "epilepsy." There was talk about the mussels she had eaten the night before, the way one of them didn't taste quite right. Toxins could cause a seizure. Lots of things could.
The next day, she went to the Neurology Center in Rockville for a follow-up appointment. Of all that would happen in coming years, this moment would provide the one happy detour. In the reception area was the office's manager, Steve Long. Hollander's sister, Susanna Gilbert, thought he was cute, and urged Diana to ask him out. She hesitated, but went back the next day and gave her business card to her neurologist. In case, she said, his office manager was interested. He was.
"I don't normally make a practice of dating the patients of the physician," Long says, laughing now at the memory. "That was never my intent. It's kind of a conflict of interest. But since she made the first move . . . the doctor was our matchmaker."
There was an immediate comfort level for Hollander in that Long knew what seizures were and had seen them in his work. Over the next several months -- when she started having regular seizures, almost always in her sleep -- they continued to date, and Hollander was officially diagnosed with epilepsy.
"I knew what I was getting into," Long says. "It was something that I felt we could handle, deal with. It didn't turn me off, and it didn't give me a whole lot of trepidation."
No matter how prepared he was for it, though, it still hit hard when he first witnessed one of Hollander's seizures. It was at night, in bed, after they had been dating for about six months.
"It freaked me out," Long says. "She made some crying noises right before she went into this grand mal seizure. It really did throw me for a loop. I was totally asleep, and I heard this going on, and I woke up in a start and there she was, having a seizure."
With the seizures coming almost exclusively at night, Hollander continued to work steadily. By late 1999, though, they started to occur during the daytime. She had another one at the office. She had them in public, and grew to hate the way people looked at her, with a mixture of pity and revulsion that was terribly humiliating.
But her relationship flourished. She and Long moved in together, settling in the house in Potomac. It was on the drive home one day that she realized she was about to have a seizure in her car, and pulled over. The reality of what might have happened was startling, and the next day she stopped driving. The little black two-seater she adores still sits in her driveway; she stubbornly refuses to give it up.
Losing that privilege hit hard, and combined with her increasing fear of public seizures, it pushed Hollander to a place where she became more and more homebound. Still, she was excited about the ski trip she and Long planned in January 2001. They were in Aspen for only about 30 minutes, though, before Hollander had a seizure. She had another one the very next day.
"I got scared," she says. "I got really, really scared that something was happening, something was changing. It was getting worse."
She went home, and took a leave of absence from WGMS. Months dragged by, and she became more and more terrified. The seizures were totally unpredictable, both in timing and frequency. New medications and new combinations of medication didn't seem to be working. Eventually, when it appeared she would not be able to return to work, WGMS let her go.
"That was a difficult period for both her and the station," Allison, the program director, says. "We wanted her to recover, but she was having such a difficult time she couldn't be on the air."
Listeners called and e-mailed, but WGMS officials had to be careful how they explained her departure. Hollander was not willing to be public about her condition. She had locked herself into a place where she was feeling frustrated, and desperate, and angry, and, yes, ashamed. She knows, now, that 2.3 million Americans suffer from epilepsy, and that it is not something she needs to hide from the world. Then, though, her fear overruled almost everything.
"I was afraid to leave the house," she says. "I was afraid to go down the stairs. That was the bottom. It was at that point that I said, all right, I could lie here in bed and just give it up, or find some way around this, however this is going to be."
She found her way on a bus ride to Montgomery Mall, of all places. The bus stopped just down the street from her house, so, one day, she summoned the courage to take the trip. It was the beginning of the holiday season, and she went to the Discovery Store and applied for a temporary job. She told the manager she had epilepsy. They hired her anyway.
"I was a salesperson," she says. "I'd never done anything like that before. But it made me feel useful. It built up my confidence."
A few months later, Allison called.
Down the stairs to Hollander's basement, past the step marked with the duct tape "X" to warn of its creakiness, is a makeshift radio studio where she has spent most of her time over the past two years. The studio was a gift from WGMS, which had it installed so that Hollander could come back to work, so to speak, but with a safety net -- she didn't have to leave her home, and she could tape her spots and her shows on her own schedule, leaving plenty of time for her to rest (exhaustion can trigger her seizures).
"I don't know what to say about management," she says. "This just goes to show that there are people out there who care about their employees. They made all of this possible. They called and asked me if I wanted to come back. They came and laid in all this equipment so I could feel safe and do the show."
When Allison called, he wanted to tell Hollander that WGMS's new general manager, Joel Oxley, was looking for input on ways to improve the station, and he thought Hollander should talk to him. What he learned, though, was that Hollander seemed on the path to recovery. So, with Oxley's approval, he asked if she felt up to doing some voice work for the station. She was thrilled. It had only been three or four months since her relationship with WGMS had ended, but it had felt, she says, "like an eternity."
She started out taping promotional spots and public service announcements, then became the regular host of a taped evening show. This past month, in anticipation of her return to live radio, she has done half her evening shows live for practice. Renee Chaney, who has been hosting the midday show, will move to the evening slot at her own request, for family reasons.
"I'm nervous and excited," Hollander says. "It's half and half. The physical part of it makes me a little nervous. It's important that I get rest.
"Still," she adds, "it's more rejuvenating than even I had imagined it would be. It's been a hard time in my life, but this is just as important to my health and well-being. It means a lot, being asked, being wanted, being necessary, feeling valued. I feel blessed."
Life still throws her its curves, and its blessings. She lost her father to cancer 18 months ago. She and Long married in September 2002. The combination of medications she takes now is working better for her than any previous dosage, but she doubts she will ever be seizure-free like some epileptics (others, in worst-case scenarios, can have up to 30 seizures a day). She has one about every three months now; the last came on Feb. 13, at home, at night.
Like some people with epilepsy, Hollander now has an "aura" -- a distinct sensation that serves as a warning that a seizure is about to occur. On the console in the WGMS studio she has a button she can push if that happens, and it will page Allison and a few key people at the station, who will initiate some planned programming to cover any period when Hollander might not be able to be on the mike.
"I'm working toward getting my life as close to normal as possible," she says. "This has thrown me for a loop, and it's taken a few years to work it out."
And, yes, there's still that pesky car thing. Hollander's stepson thinks he should get her little sports car when he turns 16 in a few years. No way, is her answer. She lets her husband drive it -- maybe he'll even take it on June 1, when he drops her at the studio in the morning -- but it's still hers.
Meanwhile, though, she's about to become just another Washington commuter, trying to find the best car-free way home from work.