Being told you have Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) at a young age could easily steer a person away from sport. But for Taryn Simpson it meant defying the diagnosis and using her own mental strength to find a passion for mountain climbing.
Having always loved sport, Taryn took part in gymnastics, dance, snowboarding and running as a child. Her family put a lot of emphasis on getting outside and staying active. Before her diagnosis, she experienced sore joints during these activities, but having known no different, she thought the pain she was experiencing was normal.
It was only when she was 24 in 2010 and a friend asked her why she hadn’t done anything about the pain that she felt the push to pursue an answer. A trip to a specialist suggested that it could be a rheumatic disorder. This, coupled with the fact that her mother had Rheumatoid Arthritis herself, led Taryn on a journey to take control of her symptoms.
Since her diagnosis, Taryn has climbed Mount St Helens, a 2,550m (over 8,000ft) high active stratovolcano in Washington, and the highest peak in the Cascade Range, Mount Rainier, which stands at 4,392m (over 14,000ft).
What was going through your head after the diagnosis?
Relief. For so many years I knew something wasn’t right but could never find an answer. Finally knowing the cause and having resources and treatment options was so reassuring. I had already given up so much in the way of physical activity and recreation that the diagnosis wasn’t really that daunting.
Changing and controlling your diet had a huge effect on limiting the pain. What did you change within your diet to achieve that?
I started with an exclusion diet. They’re used to identify food sensitivities/allergies by temporarily removing commonly inflammatory foods and allowing the system to return to baseline, before adding foods back to determine if there is a response. I found out that there are actually a lot of foods I have trouble with, but not necessarily all of them seem to impact my Rheumatoid Arthritis. The biggest perpetrator for me is gluten, with dairy coming in close second. Celiac disease/gluten intolerance is common in my family, so this didn’t come as a surprise, and the same for dairy intolerance.
Controlling your diet even allowed you to start exercising again. What did that mean for you?
I can still remember the first times I went hiking and running again without pain. Even just waking up and not being in pain. It was a complete lifestyle and outlook shift. I had been convinced that I wouldn’t be able to be active anymore, and in being able to reconnect with fitness, I found a passion for the outdoors and a love of nature that grounds and drives me today.
What encouraged you to get more into climbing and hiking?
At first it just felt good to get outside. But more and more I realised how much of a positive impact outdoor activities were having on my physical and mental health, so I really started to prioritise them. There’s so much evidence of the benefits of getting outside, and my experiences definitely agreed with that. Climbing was the first sport/activity I had participated in where the only thing holding me back was my own strength or technique, not my RA. I was driven to see how far I could go with it because I loved it and actually COULD do it without pain. It turns out that a lack of pain can be a strong motivator.
How were you able to manage your symptoms with these activities?
Knowing my limits and not pushing myself past them. This was a really hard lesson to learn, but so important. With hiking, things like proper footwear and hiking poles can really help maintain proper joint alignment and decrease impact. Eating enough so my muscles are better able to support my joints and keeping properly hydrated make a big difference as well. I’ve had to get comfortable being very honest about my abilities and pace with other hiking partners, and vocalising my limits when they arise. Vulnerability in the outdoors isn’t always something people are comfortable with, and I’ve had to get past that. Fortunately climbing rarely causes my Rheumatoid Arthritis symptoms to flare up – one of the many reasons I love it so much.
Being diagnosed with an illness such as Rheumatoid Arthritis when you’re as active as you are must have been really challenging mentally. Where did you find the strength to push through?
I’m stubborn. Seriously. Very stubborn. And maybe I could be better about vulnerability. Because of that I think a lot of what people see as ‘strength’ is my unwillingness to look or feel weak or incapable.
For so much of my youth, strength was a guiding identity for me – as a gymnast, sprinter, weightlifter, snowboarder, school push-up record holder (ha, seriously though) – that macho tomboy attitude (toxic masculinity?) served me well on the surface when my body started to fail me. Maybe to some degree I was in denial; I refused to fully admit that my body was fighting itself, and that it was only going to continue to get worse.
Also, when you live with chronic pain or illness I think it’s pretty common to normalise it. It really was my norm, I didn’t know anything else for years (decades) so I just saw it as nothing out of the ordinary.
I’m also INSANELY lucky to have such supportive friends and family. I’ve found such a loving, welcoming, non-judgmental community filled with people who allow me to do things the way I want to, support my needs, and cheer on my accomplishments (regardless of me having RA) but also understand the significance of the things I do as someone living with RA.
What have the highs been? Can you talk us through what it felt like to summit Mt Rainier?
This entire process has been so empowering. Not only have I found activities and a lifestyle that I love and that are beyond fulfilling, I’ve also built amazing friendships and connections with people who radiate kindness, compassion, support, and strength, and who help me be the best version of myself.
Being forced to take care of my body has caused me to live a much healthier lifestyle and to find balance. I wasn’t always good at taking care of myself, but being young and relatively healthy meant that the impacts of unhealthy lifestyle choices were less apparent.
The mental and emotional challenge of this whole process has probably been more transformative than the physical. Not only have I returned to an active lifestyle after years away, I’m doing more than I ever thought I could or would. That has only happened because I now truly understand that the biggest hurdle I’ll ever face is myself.
If I want to do something, it’s not a matter of if I can, but how. With hard work and dedication and sometimes some strange pathways to get there, you can do more than you ever thought possible. It sounds so cliché but it’s so true.
Standing on the summit of Mount Rainier solidified that for me. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it, and as I reached the summit tears started to stream down my face as I thought, ‘I actually did it’.
What advice would you give someone in a similar situation as you, struggling with an injury or illness in the pursuit of being active?
First of all, it CAN get better. Listen to your body, seek professional help and advocate for your own health. If doctors won’t listen to you or don’t have answers, stand your ground or find a new doctor. Keep looking until you find the right specialist for you. Whether that’s holistic medicine, a rheumatologist, a pain specialist, an acupuncturist, a nutritionist – whatever works for you.
The world has a habit of trying to disprove pain they can’t see, whether it’s chronic pain, internal dysfunction, mental illness – don’t listen to them and don’t give up. Your pain is real and you deserve to heal and live a happy, healthy, fulfilling, pain-free life.
If I could have done any ONE single thing differently, it would have been to pursue an answer more aggressively sooner. Which brings me to the next point: if someone tells you a symptom or something you’re experiencing isn’t normal, or if moderate activity causes severe inflammation or pain when it doesn’t for others, don’t take it as an insult. Take it as a sign.
Listen to your body. Rest. Eat well. Exercise. Relax. Invest in yourself, whether that’s reading, creating art, meditating, learning something new, going outside, whatever helps you get in touch with yourself and unwind. Taking care of yourself isn’t weakness, it’s showing yourself respect, and everyone deserved a little respect.
Also, if you can overcome pain or illness, or push through chronic pain (in a non-damaging way) I kind of think it makes you tougher and more capable of handling the sufferfest that outdoor endeavours can sometimes be… that LIFE can sometimes be.
To read more about Taryn’s inspiring story with chronic pain, click here.
If you enjoyed this interview, see our Q&A with Jenny Tough for another inspiring story.