Before Game of Thrones fans were introduced to the deposed and hunted royal Daenerys Targaryen, the actress behind the role was facing a life-threatening battle of her own. In a new essay for The New Yorker, Emilia Clarke revealed she suffered two brain aneurysms during her time on the show, the first occurring after wrapping filming of Season 1 of the HBO series.
“Just when all my childhood dreams seemed to have come true, I nearly lost my mind and then my life,” she wrote. “I’ve never told this story publicly, but now it’s time.”
It all started on February 11, 2011–two months before the series premiered. Clarke was working out with a trainer when she felt “as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain.” She continued, “I tried to ignore the pain and push through it, but I just couldn’t. I told my trainer I had to take a break. Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room. I reached the toilet, sank to my knees, and proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill. Meanwhile, the pain–shooting, stabbing, constricting pain–was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged.”
Eventually, someone came to her aid and Clarke was transported to a hospital. It’s there she learned she was suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which she described as “a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain.” According to the actress, roughly one-third of patients who suffer those don’t survive. Soon after she underwent her first brain surgery.
The surgery left her alive but in extreme pain. Later, in a series of cognitive exercises given to her by a nurse, Clarke realized she couldn’t remember her name. She was experiencing a case of aphasia. “Nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic,” she wrote. “I’d never experienced fear like that–a sense of doom closing in. I could see my life ahead, and it wasn’t worth living. I am an actor; I need to remember my lines. Now I couldn’t recall my name.”
It took a week for the aphasia to pass and a month after her admittance, Clarke left the hospital. She did so with the knowledge that there was a second smaller aneurysm in her brain. “The doctors said, though, that it was small and it was possible it would remain dormant and harmless indefinitely,” she explained. “We would just keep a careful watch.”
In the time that followed, Clarke often found herself weak, fatigued, and in pain. “Season 2 would be my worst. I didn’t know what Daenerys was doing,” she wrote. “If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die.”
Then, after finishing Season 3 of the series and spending some time in New York City, Clarke went in for one of her now-regular brain scans. It was discovered that the smaller aneurysm had doubled in size and she would again need to undergo surgery. Unlike the previous one, though, this procedure was not as successful.
“When they woke me, I was screaming in pain. The procedure had failed,” she recalled. “I had a massive bleed and the doctors made it plain that my chances of surviving were precarious if they didn’t operate again. This time they needed to access my brain in the old-fashioned way—through my skull. And the operation had to happen immediately.”
Again, Clarke spent a month in the hospital recovering from brain surgery. And once again, it took a toll on her mentally. “I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope,” she said. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks. I was raised never to say, ‘It’s not fair’; I was taught to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you. But, going through this experience for the second time, all hope receded. I felt like a shell of myself.”
What’s more, Clarke suffered in silence. She never went public with the struggles she was facing. Until now, that is. “In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes,” she wrote. “I am now at a hundred percent.” Beyond that, Clarke also launched the charitable organization SameYou, which has the goal of providing treatment for those suffering from brain injuries and strokes.
And now she’s looking toward another accomplishment: the end of Game of Thrones. “There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of Thrones,” she said. “I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”