Water in My Lungs:
On Time Outdoors, Depression, & Visual Practice
By Artist Oksana Berda
“I wondered whether water is a mirror for our darker emotions as much as it is an engine for our happiness. Water quiets all the noise, all the distractions, and connects you to your own thoughts.”
― Wallace J. Nichols, Blue Mind
After finishing graduate school, I became bogged down and frustrated by the dead ends I kept hitting. I was no longer in school where success was quantifiable. I was going from one soul-crushing internship to another.
All I remember from back then is how cold the winter was and waking up in the morning with tears in my eyes.
I had rigid expectations for myself. I thought that I had to work really hard to get past the misery.
I developed chronic back pain from sitting so much throughout the day and that tension eventually moved to my knees and right shoulder. I was cracking in half physically and mentally. I believed if I was tired enough, stressed enough, miserable enough, then I was on my way to achieving the ‘thing’ I was chasing.
I could not explain my own sadness to myself. So instead I began falling away.
In truth, I didn’t even know what I was chasing. I was adrift in a fog with no horizon, no clarity, no clear goals working myself raw and running scared, towards nothing.
Now, looking back, I think of that period of time as a gradual drift. It was a collection of obstacles that I didn’t know how to learn from: slim paychecks, relentless cold, feelings of burnout and loneliness. I could not explain my own sadness to myself. So instead I began falling away.
I know now how subtle depression can be. It’s a cycle that starts with the drift, with slow disconnection. I couldn’t identify my needs, so I wasn’t taking care of myself, which in turn left me depleted. There was nothing specific to blame – so I found myself increasingly unmoored, directionless.
How do you figure out what to heal? Where do you start?
I remember sitting on the streetcar coming home on a Saturday afternoon and there was a father and his 3 year old son sitting next to me. I made a paper crane for the kid out of the transfer ticket I had and he became so happy and fascinated with it, laughing and playing. His dad thanked me and I had to get off at a random stop so I could bawl my eyes out. What made me cry was how innocent the child’s joy was, and his effortless connection to it. I realized that I couldn’t remember how to do that.
How do you figure out what to heal? Where do you start?
One thing I could identify as definite ‘happy-making’ for me was being outside.
At that time I lived near a park right on Lake Ontario. This place became part of my emotional anatomy for over a year as I waded through the shallows of my depression. I made a conscious decision to be outside the same way you might make a doctor’s appointment or go to a pilates class every morning. I went to this beach weekly.
This place became part of my emotional anatomy for over a year as I waded through the shallows of my depression.
As I returned again and again I grew to know this place intimately, and in turn I felt like it knew me intimately too. It knew my feet, my hands, and my eyes the same way I knew how the lake fell and rose throughout the year, which pieces of driftwood washed up when, and which trees sprung leaves first come May. I could breathe and move in ways that my body and mind needed.
I can only describe my connection with this place as a pull. I couldn’t not be there.
My deep inner wisdom was pulling me there. I was pouring water back into those cracks within me that I had deserted. I was cultivating a new type of inner strength. Or perhaps I was cultivating awareness of my inner strength and what it looks like to activate it.
I was pouring water back into those cracks within me that I had deserted.
That year and the time I spent on this little beach helped me to believe in and respect myself as a painter. I took it seriously and began to fight for it. Sometimes that looked like waking up at 5 am to paint before going to work for the day; or scraping whatever money I had to buy paint and paper, and clawing through and out of moments of self-doubt and impostor syndrome when showing my work.
Going to my beach, putting my feet in the water, tracing the horizon, filling up my lungs, allows me to re-integrate, to feel like myself. Being outside gives me a sense of expansion, there are no limits. I can process how I feel and what I am going through. I can make decisions from the core of who I am.
Going to my beach, putting my feet in the water, tracing the horizon, filling up my lungs, allows me to re-integrate, to feel like myself.
Five years later I am working through new challenges. Sometimes self-doubt, the most experienced shape shifter, still trips me up. And if I find myself dropping back into old patterns of helplessness, I know that the sure way to get outside of these feelings is by literally getting outside.
The moment my bare feet connect with the water, I connect with myself.
Oksana Berda is a Toronto-based abstract artist. She holds a Master of Arts from the University of New Brunswick in Creative Writing, which informs the narrative quality of her work. Through her paintings she explores our emotional relationship with landscapes. Berda is an avid hiker and gets her inspiration from trips to various parks surrounding Toronto and spending time on Lake Ontario. See more of her work at oksanaberda.com and on Instagram @oksana.berda.
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