As Daenerys Targaryen, aka Khaleesi, on Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke is a pillar of strength —truly a legit warrior princess. But while she was portraying the character that has become synonymous with girl power, Clarke was also fighting for her life, she revealed today. “Just when all my childhood dreams seemed to have come true, I nearly lost my mind and then my life,” she said.
In early 2011, right after filming the first season of Game of Thrones, she was working out with her trainer in a gym in North London when she felt a horrible headache coming on. She barely had the strength to make it to the locker room, where she violently vomited and felt horrific, stabbing pain. An ambulance took her to a nearby hospital, where an MRI revealed that she had suffered an aneurysm, caused by a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a potentially deadly type of stroke that is caused by bleeding into the space around the brain. “As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter,” Clarke said. “For the patients who do survive, urgent treatment is required to seal off the aneurysm, as there is a very high risk of a second, often fatal bleed.”
At 24 years old, Clarke had brain surgery, and was moved out of the I.C.U. after four days. Shortly after, when a nurse woke her up to ask Clarke her name as part of a regular cognitive exercise, Clarke couldn’t remember it. “Instead, nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic,” she has said. “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.” Clarke was experiencing aphasia, a language impairment caused by her brain trauma. She returned to the I.C.U. and the aphasia passed after about a week.
But her recovery after that was anything but easy. “In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug,” she has said. “I asked the medical staff to let me die. My job — my entire dream of what my life would be — centered on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost.” Before she left the hospital, she was told she had a smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain that could pop at any time, so it had to be monitored regularly.
Just weeks later, she had to be back on set for Game of Thrones and had plenty of press interviews to do before then. “Even before we began filming Season 2, I was deeply unsure of myself,” Clarke recalled. “I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die. Staying at a hotel in London during a publicity tour, I vividly remember thinking, I can’t keep up or think or breathe, much less try to be charming. I sipped on morphine in between interviews. The pain was there, and the fatigue was like the worst exhaustion I’d ever experienced, multiplied by a million.” Filming season 2 was a deep struggle.
While Clarke was in New York to play Holly Golightly on Broadway, she went in for one of her regular brain scans and discovered the growth had doubled in size, so she needed to have surgery right away. The surgery failed, and they had to try again immediately — this time through her skull. “The recovery was even more painful than it had been after the first surgery,” she has said. “I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced. I emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of my head. Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium.” She worried about memory loss and losing peripheral vision. “I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope. 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. So much so that I now have a hard time remembering those dark days in much detail. My mind has blocked them out.”
But Clarke has survived, fully recovered, and is now ready to share her story, especially for a charity she has helped develop with partners in the U.S. and U.K., called SameYou. Its mission is to help provide access to treatment and rehabilitation for people who have suffered brain injuries and stroke. “In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes,” she has said. “I am now at a hundred percent… There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of Thrones. I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”