How far can you be comfortable with pain? Actor-director Divya Palat unwittingly found herself on that unenviable quest five years ago, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). It happened to be at the peak of her career. Where does one go from there?
As far as Divya is concerned, you just keep pushing forward.
Born into the royal family of Kochi, Divya started acting at the age of three, and did numerous commercials, plays and films before heading to Stanford on a full scholarship to do a double major in mathematics and drama. “I’ve moved 19 homes in my life,” laughs the award-winning director. “I make friends everywhere.”
At 21, Divya set up her own production house, Balancing Act Films, creating commercials, music videos and feature films. Often profiled in young entrepreneurs’ lists, Divya has won awards for Best Director at the New York, Sydney and Melbourne Fringe Festivals as well as Best Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
When she was 24, she married actor-entrepreneur Aditya Hitkari. A few years ago, he decided to join her in her business. “It’s fabulous to work with him,” admits Divya. “We have common core values, and it’s nice to have an equal around. The relationship has only grown stronger.”
But if life served Divya pleasure, it also served her pain. A whole lot of it.
Divya was first hospitalized in 2005 with plaque deposits in her brain. “I was told it was ADEM, a brain disorder, but I was to go home and not worry about it,” she recalls. Later, in 2013, while doing an MRI to diagnose a temporary loss of vision, the doctors realised she had a tumour. “It was a wonder that I was even walking around, forget working 12-hour shifts!” she remembers her doctor saying in surprise.
It turned out that the tumour and its associated steroids were her body’s defence mechanism to cope with her MS. “So I never had any symptoms all those years. The tumour protected me!” she exclaims with awe.
Defiant in the face of debilitating disease, Divya launched The Balancing Act Trust, which supports numerous NGO raising funds through theatre and film at an inclusive cultural festival called YouTheatre. She continues to work at a frenetic pace, shooting up to four brand videos featuring Bollywood stars every week, and has learnt to live with painful attacks, which can last from 30 seconds to three weeks.
“Just this September, I had an excruciating attack that went on for days; it was like electric shocks in my head. There’s only so much pain one can take,” she sighs sadly.
Divya has learnt a thing or two about living with MS. “Don’t listen to others; find your own therapy. Even a cup of coffee can help with a migraine sometimes,” she says, adding that she refuses to pop excessive pills as the body only gets immune to medication after a while. “I want my body to adapt,” she says firmly.
And she’s found successful ways to battle the pain: with humour, exercise, online support groups, the company of friends, the support of her family, and optimism. “We need to see the positive side of life,” she says, cuddling her cocker spaniel, Magic.
Yoga gurus tell you to find comfort in discomfort if you want to progress in your practice. Divya has made a life of it.
First published in the Winter 2018 issue of eShe magazine.