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Inhale / Exhale

Kyle Kotajarvi is a photographer and filmmaker based in Seattle, WA. The following essay is about what inspired him to create his short film Inhale / Exhale - a mental-health-focused narrative about our need for the outdoors through the trials and tribulations of the past few years.

By: Kyle Kotajarvi + Save to a List

Living with seasonal depression and an anxiety disorder in one of the gloomiest places in the United States come wintertime has its trials and tribulations.

In other words, it’s not fun most days.

I like to tell people that the three to four months of beautiful summertime weather we get in Washington makes the other seventy-five percent of the year worth it. But, that’s usually forgotten come daylight saving time in November. (It's my least favorite holiday.)

The past few years, I’ve been privileged to fly far away from the short days of winter to the Southern Hemisphere. With COVID-19 halting travel just about everywhere in the latter days of 2020, I had to confront my seasonal depression for the first time in years.

Now, I’m not a mental health expert, but I know myself, and the best medicine for me has always been taking my camera outdoors and pointing it at just about anything.

Even the slightest chance of a sunset in the North Cascades can convince me to get out of bed on the days where it’s the most difficult to leave the comfort of my duvet.

And with the ever-growing complexity of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests of early summer, and an arduous election cycle; it seemed like the outdoors were the one safe haven most people I knew were retreating to.

And we even lost that for some time...

The idea for Inhale / Exhale came out of that isolation and togetherness that we’ve all experienced this past year.

We went through those early days of the pandemic together when nothing made sense and toilet paper was being panic-purchased off the shelves.

We all sat alone in our homes wishing that we could hold our friends or see our families near and far.

We were destroyed by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and had to confront some hard truths and humble ourselves.

We lost access to our trail systems as social-distancing measures closed many of the parks and wilderness sanctuaries in Washington.

Life has been a spider web of collective trauma through these past 18 months.

And as a storyteller, I wanted to give others a platform to share a moment of their truths and to explore how the outdoors has encouraged them to find community through those hardships. I wanted to inspire others to discover similar respite outside.

Photo from film by Kyle Kotajarvi.

To inhale is to take that first step of acknowledgment.

To come to an understanding of where you are mentally, emotionally, and physically. Whether you’re feeling lonely, helpless, or burnt out, we all need to take account of ourselves and our well-being.

For me, that was acknowledging that much of life was out of my control. And as someone whose anxiety thrives in said situations, that was much easier said than done.

For film subjects Maria, Max, and Chelsea (and you!) that surely means something different.

All the same, we need to be vulnerable with ourselves and where we are currently.

Photo from film by Kyle Kotajarvi.

To exhale is to become present in whatever moment you’re currently in. Bringing that presence to the outdoors gave me a great sense of calm.

With my boots on the trail or sitting lakeside around a campfire, it’s objectively easier to acknowledge that life is out of my control.

Sometimes you need to climb a mountain to feel “okay” with your current situation. And sometimes you just need to go to the park down the street and stare at the trees.

Photo from film by Kyle Kotajarvi.

I wanted to tell this story to inspire others to find a brief moment of calm in the outdoors. Whether it be deep in the mountains, or right out your front door, it can be a place of healing and peace.

The outdoors is where I feel most connected with myself and also with the people I care about.

It was the first place I was able to safely reconnect with my community again following the trails reopening in Washington.

We all hiked separately to a fire lookout near Mount Rainier and stayed six feet apart in our masks. It felt kind of weird at first having to keep a distance away from everyone, but looking back on it now, I can’t tell you how much I needed that.

To be in such a beautiful place, seeing people outside of my home again for the first time in months gave me a new perspective about how much I needed that space.

The outdoors was more than the mountains, trails, and evergreens. These are the places and spaces that connect us, and where find our inner light in the darkest days.

While I dig in for another long winter here in Washington - the sun now setting before 5 pm, and the rain beating down on my roof - I know those spaces will be there for me when I need them most.


The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the help of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with questions regarding mental health. 

If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

You are not alone. You are loved. And you will get through this.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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