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Underwater Breathing Lessons For All

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences,
respectful, keeping our distance
And then one day
The sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbors.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water –
(Excerpts from Breathing Underwater – Carol Bieleck, 2004)


We all suffer from addiction … We are all addicted to our way of thinking, Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr (2019) states – even if we do not battle with the problem of alcohol or drug dependency.

The poem, Breathing underwater, is as “an image of what the addicted person has to do”, Rohr says. If we do not overcome our addiction, Rohr cautions, we won’t get far, and we won’t change.

Ten years after Carol Bieleck had written the poem, Rohr published a book with the same title, hoping – as he says – that it could offer us some underwater breathing lessons. He addresses the trapped individual in it, adding that similar parallels exist in institutions, cultures and nations (Rohr 2018).

The poem has helped countless people battling addiction.

Therapist Annette Kaye (2020) explains how it has supported her: “I came across this poem years ago, and it took my breath away. At the time, life felt overwhelming, as though I was drowning with no resources for making sense of or surviving what was happening. The poem found me at just the right time, bringing a message about surrendering to events, not as a victim, but with a kind of contemplative, curious acceptance. I won’t pretend that was or continues to be a smooth process! I still rail against events and people I feel flooded by, but this poem serves as a gentle reminder that there is life and castles beneath the waters. I hope you find it has something to say to you in these watery times.”

Minnesota-based addiction counsellor Lee Hausmann (2017) describes the poem’s meaning for her: “Breathing under water is my ability to face a life crisis or have a brush with mood-altering substances and not return to my addiction. When faced with complex challenges and feeling like I am gasping for air, I have learned to accept the things I can’t control and let things be. I can drop into a place within myself that allows me to keep breathing without becoming consumed by external circumstances.

“I am a woman, a mother, a partner, a therapist, and I am an addict. My addiction is my treasured gift. This crisis has been an opportunity for remarkable spiritual growth. I was able to transform my thinking, my belief system and my interactions with this world. I opened up to a new way of seeing, a new level of clarity, and a higher level of consciousness. I had no success until I acknowledged that all my human strength and willpower weren’t enough to fight this disease. I was going to drown.

“Breathing underwater isn’t always easy. Some days I wonder, ‘Am I going to drown?’ No, I am not. I have built a foundation for living that I step into with ease. When the waves of life threaten to disrupt my serenity, my work in recovery has taught me to drop into my centre and draw from the internal resources of faith, strength and love. I am then able to breathe underwater.”

Rohr sums up that the poem deals with transformative renewal.
He adds that we cannot stop the drowning waters of our addictive nature or culture from rising, but we must at least see our reality for what it is, seek to detach from it properly, build a coral castle and learn to breathe underwater (Rohr, 2018).


List of References
Bieleck, C. 2004. Breathing underwater. (Unpublished poem.)
Hausman, L. 2018. Breathing under water: living with health, wholeness, serenity and addiction. Available at: Accessed 5 September 2022.
Kaye, A. 2020. Poems for the pandemic. Available at: Accessed 6 September 2022.
Rohr, R. 2018. Breathing under water. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge.
Rohr, R 2019. Father Richard Rohr discusses addiction with Tony Rosen. Available at: 10 April 2022.