As the human species, I think it’s fair to say that we try to avoid pain at any cost. Pain is seen as something bad, and we absolutely want no part of it. We often question why and for what purpose does pain play in our lives. It’s been a conomdrum that philosophers, theologians, spiritual leaders and even everyday people have wrestled with to try to find an answer to, and as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a clear one yet. And while this may discourage some, I see it as an opportunity to get down to business and try to find an answer for myself. And on this journey to discover my own answers, I turn to the one and only Khaleesi: Emilia Clarke.
During the 2010s there was a small, indie television show on HBO called Game of Thrones. It had sex, political intrigue, dragons, ice zombies: all the usual clutter of a show that no one in their right mind would watch. Okay, the joke is over. Everyone and their mom knows about Game of Thrones, and it’s easily one of the biggest and most popular shows in the history of television. I, like almost everyone else on Earth, was a dedicated fan of the show and book series that it is based on. And last year I anxiously awaited the conclusion of the story. I won’t go into any unnecessary details about how I felt about the story’s ending. All you need to know is that I thought it totally sucked. But Game of Thrones and it’s terrible ending is not what I want to focus on in this blog post. My focus is on the one and only Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen. Or rather, the woman behind the famous role: Emilia Clarke, and her amazing battle of the brain.
Before the release of the final season of Game of Thrones last April, The New Yorker published Emilia’s personal story in an essay titled: “A Battle for My Life”. In her writing, Emilia describes her harrowing experience of having a brain aneurysm after shooting the first season back in 2011. She was only 24 at the time. After going through a life-saving surgery and time in the ICU, Emilia suffered from a bout of apahasia, a condition brought on by the trauma her brain had been through. During this time, Emilia experience moments of great anguish to the point where she thought that death would be the only release. Thankfully she survived, adn not long after she was back on set for season two.
Doctors told Emilia that she still had another aneurysm on the other side of her brain that could rupture at any time. But since it was small they told her that it possible for it to not be a threat on her life. Emilia carried on with her life but still had to deal with a tough recovery filled with uncertainty. She was often so woozy and weak that she believed she would die. Pain and fatigue were ever present for her, and she recalls having to “sip on morphine.”
Emilia continued on in her work, filming season 2 of Game of Thrones and trying her best to stay health. “Every minute of every day, I thought I was going to die,” she said. But with amazing resilience Emilia made it through.
In 2013, after finishing season 3 of Game of Thrones and a small stint on Broadway playing Holly Golightly, Emilia went back into the hospital for a routine brain scan. Doctors discovered that the small growth on the side of her brain, which was initially thought of as a non-threat, had doubled in size. But they promised her that a simple operation would take care of it.
Turns out, things were not as simple as doctors had predicted. When they woke Emilia after her surgery, she was screaming in pain. The operation had not worked, and had resulted in a massive brain bleed. Her chances of surviving were small unless they operated again, this time going through her skull. This time the recovery was much harder, with Emilia having a drain coming out of her head. Parts of her skull had been replaced by titanium. But more than the physical challenges, Emilia worried about her cognitive and sensory losses.
During her month-long recovery in the hospital, Emilia experience hopelessness and anxiety. She write that she “felt like a shell” of herself. Years later, she still has difficulty remembering those days in detail because she block much of them out of her memory. She does, however, remember being convinced that she was not going to live. Emilia chose to keep her health issues a secret, even going so far as to deny them when The National Enquirer ran a short story on it. But in 2019, Emilia bravely shared her story, and has used the thing that once brought her so much pain to bring hope and help to others. And that help comes through SameYou.
SameYou works to provide treatment for people who are recovering from brain injuries and strokes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Emilia and her organization have been raising money for brain injury and stroke patients so that they can stay safe and supported in their homes while hospitals work to help those suffering from the coronavirus. Since writing about her experience, Emilia has wasted no time on speaking engagements and fundraisers that help shine a much-needed light on brain injury and those who have had to live with it. She plays more than just a hero in the fictional land of Westeros: Emilia is a hero and inspiration for many all across the world.
So, what is the point in telling Emilia’s story of surviving two brain aneurysms? I myself have never had to deal with a brain injury, and I am nothing close to being a popular actress. But I do see something special in Emilia’s story that I think many people can learn from and possibly apply to their own lives if they want to. And that is the power of taking what once brought pain and using it to do something good.
There could have been many ways that Emilia could have responded to her brain injuries. Initially she chose not to discuss it publicly, probably so that she would not have to relive some of the worst moments of her life. No one can blame her for that. She could have continued to keep things quiet and leave everything in the past. But Emilia came to a point where she felt comfortable enough to open up about her experiences on the world stage, and is now working to help people going through similar experiences. SameYou is a testament to Emilia’s strength and perseverance, and I expect that in years to come she and the organization will play an even bigger role and help countless people around the world.
Looking at my own life, I have noticed that as I’ve gotten older, the things that once brought me so much pain are now major influences for how I want to help others. Growing up, my mental illnesses were aspects of my life that I mainly kept hidden from those around me for fear of what they may think about me. But in my later teenage years, I decided that my mental health was not something to be ashamed of, but that it could actually lead me to do something good. I began to speak out more and candidly share my story and struggles, and over time I began to find a sense of strength that I had never felt before. Yes, there were definitely some people who looked at me funny and undoubtedly thought I was crazy to share such personal details, but I didn’t care. If my story could help people—even if it was just one person—I knew it was worth it.
I’m confident that there are people all over the world like Emilia Clarke and myself who have chosen not to let the painful parts of their lives get the best of them, but have decided to use pain as a fuel to help others. It isn’t easy, nor is it for everyone, and that’s okay. However you choose to deal with the pain in your own life is your choice to make. But know that whatever pain you deal with, that it does not come in vain. You can make a change that can affect people you haven’t even met just by sharing your story. Whatever you decide to do, please know that I’m proud of you for not giving up.
And remember one last thing: Dracarys!
If you would like to read Emilia’s story, you can find it here.
For more information on SameYou, click here.