Aphasia: From Bruce Willis to Emilia Clarke, celebrities who've battled the same devastating condition

Watch: Bruce Willis' family reveal his is 'stepping away' from acting due to aphasia diagnosis

Aphasia can be an upsetting health condition that affects your speech or language skills, usually caused by damage to the left side of the brain (like a stroke).

It has affected a number of different celebrities, some more severely than others. Bruce Willis' family, for example, memorably announced he would be "stepping away" from his much-loved acting career due to having the condition.

"Our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting hist cognitive abilities," his family – wife Emma Heming Willis, ex-wife Demi Moore, and daughters Rumer Willis, Scout Willis, Tallulah Willis, Mabel Willis and Evelyn Willis – shared in a joint statement in March.

"As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him."

Symptoms can include trouble with reading, listening, speaking, typing or writing. While it affects a person's ability to communicate, it doesn't affect their intelligence.

Willis' family didn't share what caused his aphasia, but said while they moved through the "challenging" time as a strong family unit, they still planned to "live it up" together – "as Bruce always says".

If you're wondering what exactly aphasia is – one of the most searched for questions on Yahoo Search in 2022 – here's a look at what other stars have said about their experience.

Emilia Clarke

Emilia Clarke, who has previously had aphasia, attends the EE British Academy Film Awards 2020 at Royal Albert Hall on February 02, 2020 in London, England. (WireImage)
Emilia Clarke's aphasia caused her to forget her own name. (Getty Images)

Emilia Clarke suffered an aneurysm (a bulge in a blood vessel) that caused a subarachnoid haemorrhage (an uncommon type of stroke) in 2011, shortly after finishing filming the first season of Game of Thrones.

She then had brain surgery, and when she reached the two-week mark afterwards, she couldn't remember her name. "Nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic," the actor, now 35, wrote in an essay for The New Yorker.

"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.

"I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered."

"In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug," she added. "I asked the medical staff to let me die. My job – my entire dream of what my life would be – centred on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost."

But, thankfully, after about a week back in the intensive care unit the aphasia passed, and she was able to speak again.

In 2013, she had to have a second operation to address another aneurysm that was about to "pop".

Despite terrifying complications, a painful recovery and decline in her mental health, she said has "healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes", describing herself as being at 100%.

She has since set up SameYou, a charity that aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.

Read more: Aphasia explained: The truth about Bruce Willis' health condition

Sharon Stone

American actress Sharon Stone, who spent two years recovering from aphasia, visits Dolce & Gabbana's boutique during the fifth day of the Milan Fashion Week Women's Fall Winter Collection 2022. Milan (Italy), February 26th, 2022 (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Sharon Stone spent two years learning to walk, talk and read again. (Getty Images)

Sharon Stone was rushed to hospital in 2001 for a stroke that caused a "massive brain haemorrhage", she told The Hollywood Reporter.

After bleeding in her brain for nine days, the Basic Instinct star had a long journey recovering from typical symptoms of aphasia. "I spent two years learning to walk and talk again," she said. "I came home from that stroke stuttering, couldn’t read for two years."

Her experience has given her a positive outlook on ageing. "I don’t need someone to make me feel bad about growing older. I’ll tell you what makes you feel bad: when you think you might not."

Stone said it has been a "humbling journey", referencing that she had a hard time with her lines when on Law & Order. "I can talk about it now because I'm okay now."

"I feel really good about talking and having my full vocabulary," she added.

While undeniably a challenging ordeal, Stone has also spoken about how the effects of the stroke have changed how she is in a positive way. "I became more emotionally intelligent," she told ABC news.

"I chose to work very hard to open up other parts of my mind. Now I’m stronger. And I can be abrasively direct. That scares people, but I think that’s not my problem. It’s like, I have brain damage; you’ll just have to deal with it."

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Terry Jones

Terry Jones attends the Special Screening Narrative:
Terry Jones was diagnosed with a progressive form of aphasia, which affected his speech. (Getty Images)

Just before the late Monty Python star Terry Jones was about to receive the Bafta Special Award for Outstanding Contribution to Film and Television in 2016, his representative revealed he had been suffering from a severe case of aphasia.

"Terry has been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a variant of frontotemporal dementia," the statement read.

"This illness affects his ability to communicate and he is no longer able to give interviews. Terry is proud and honoured to be recognised in this way and is looking forward to the celebrations."

Jones sadly passed away in 2020 at the age of 77 after battling the rare form of dementia.

Gabby Giffords

Gabby Giffords, from the film Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, poses at the Variety Studio at SXSW 2022 at JW Marriott Austin on March 13, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Getty Images for Variety)
Gabby Giffords uses music to help her in her aphasia recovery. (Getty Images)

Shockingly, Gabby Giffords, a former member of the US House of Representatives, was shot in the head in an attempted assassination in 2011.

The 51-year-old survived, but has had a long road to recovery, having multiple surgeries and spending a huge chunk of time in hospital. She continues to live with aphasia.

"Aphasia really sucks," she told PBS News Hour in 2021. "The words are there in my brain. I just can't get them out. I love to talk. I'm gabby."

She's had a decade of near constant therapy and exercises to retrain her body and brain, including speech therapy. But one thing that's helped Giffords, in particular, is her love of singing and music, which she incorporated in to her sessions, as it helped her find the right words.

She said she practices music around five days a week, including the french horn that she took up at age 13. "It's all still there in my brain," she said, though added, "Reading the music is hard."

Read more: Loose Women's Sophie Morgan 'doesn't live with regret' after crash that paralysed her

Patricia Neal

Actress Patricia Neal attends the
Roald Dahl's wife Patricia Neal influenced the BFG with the way she began speaking after her stroke. (Getty Images)

Patricia Neal, wife of Roald Dahl, actually shaped the language in his book The BFG due to her aphasia symptoms. She suffered three consecutive strokes while pregnant with her fifth child, shortly after her first day of production on 1966 drama Seven Women.

When Neal woke from a coma, she was partially blind and paralysed on the right side of her body, and couldn't speak or remember anything. The Oscar winner semi-recovered from the paralysis but still had some difficulty speaking.

In an essay for The Guardian, a doctor and friend of the late Dahl said that while her speech began to return, "she struggled with the names of objects and people".

"When she couldn’t find the words, she invented new ones," he added. "A drink was a 'soap driver' or a 'sooty swatch'. A cigarette was an 'oblogon'.

"Pat would complain that Dahl 'made her skitch' (cross) or 'gave her the sinkers' (depression)."

Carefully recording these phrases, Dahl used them years later to come up with new words for for The BFG.

In his much-loved book, the Big Friendly Giant says, “Please understand that I cannot be helping it if I sometimes is saying things a little squiggly … Words is oh such a twitch tickling problem to me all my life.”

Neal died of lung cancer in 2010 at age 84.

For information on how to help people with aphasia, visit the charity Say Aphasia's website, or call 44 (0)7796 143118 or email colin@sayaphasia.org