Emilia Clarke Daenerys Targaryen Game of Thrones HBO
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Emilia Clarke 'nearly lost' her mind and her life right as Game of Thrones became a hit

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Mar 21, 2019, 2:34 PM EDT (Updated)

If you’ve been watching the past seven seasons of Game of Thrones, you know full well that any character who’s been around since Season 1 has an uncanny knack for survival, perhaps no one more so than Daenerys Targaryen, whose own personal arc has seen trial after trial. But the actress who plays our Khaleesi, Emilia Clarke, has lived through so much worse.

In a personal essay in The New Yorker today, Clarke details for the first time publicly that she had two brain aneurysms that required three brain surgeries, just as Game of Thrones was becoming the biggest show on television. “I nearly lost my mind and then my life,” she writes.

The first aneurysm happened after she had wrapped Season 1, but before the show became a phenomenon. She was working out, when she had to excuse herself to the locker room due to a pounding headache and lethargy. In the locker room, she became “violently, voluminously ill,” and “at some level” realized her brain was damaged. She tried to keep moving her fingers and toes; to keep her “memory alive,” she “tried to recall, among other things, some lines from Game of Thrones.”

Fortunately, someone came to her aid and got an ambulance on the scene, which quickly took her to the hospital. “Finally, I was sent for an MRI, a brain scan. The diagnosis was quick and ominous: a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain. I’d had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture,” writes Clarke.

She was ushered to London for brain surgery, which appeared successful. But while recovering, she was asked her full name — Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke — which she couldn’t recall. “I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered,” she writes. Panic struck; How could she be an actress if she couldn’t remember her lines, much less her name?  

After about a week back in the ICU, the aphasia passed. After a month of being in the hospital, she was sent home, just in time to do press for Season 1 and to start shooting Season 2, although doctors also found another, smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain. She was told it could “pop” at any time, but that it was also possible it would remain “dormant and harmless indefinitely.” 

She told her HBO bosses about what had happened, and that she didn’t want it to become a public discussion and distract from the show. “The show must go on!” she thought, but deep down she was deeply worried about the pain and fatigue.

Clarke made it through the press tour, and then set off to shoot Season 2. “On the set, I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled. Season 2 would be my worst. I didn’t know what Daenerys was doing. If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die,” writes Clarke.

After Season 2, Clarke went in for a regular brain scan, and was told by the doctors that the other growth had doubled in size, and that surgery was necessary. But that surgery wasn’t a success, and she woke up “screaming in pain.” They had to go in and do another, more invasive surgery. “This time they needed to access my brain in the old-fashioned way — through my skull. And the operation had to happen immediately.”

Though you can’t see the scars these days, Clarke notes that she emerged from that successful surgery looking as though she’d been “been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced.” She spent another hopeless month in the hospital. 

But she recovered, and a few weeks post-hospital, she was doing press for Thrones at San Diego Comic-Con in front of thousands of people. And she slowly healed from there. “In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at a hundred per cent,” Clarke writes.

Thank the gods, Clarke will be appearing once again when Game of Thrones Season 8 debuts on HBO April 14.