Recovery from Something New
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
When Nell Hurley heard the word “cancer” from her doctor, it was a shock. She is in otherwise outstanding health — in fact, runs her own coaching business, Hurley Health Coaching. And unlike the disease she’s been in recovery from for 25+ years — addiction — this diagnosis came out of nowhere. She hadn’t been wrestling with signs and symptoms. Family and coworkers hadn’t called attention to anything. It just surfaced in a routine health checkup. Thank goodness. The recruitment and outreach manager for Augsburg University’s StepUP collegiate recovery program was able to get a quick surgery to remove the cancer and is now on to another recovery journey. We checked in with our close friend and former colleague, a trailblazing recovery advocate, to learn more about the new experience and her long, inspired career helping others.
Nell, once again, you are gaining personal wisdom about both human vulnerability and resilience. We are so glad to hear that your surgery was a success and that your prognosis is good. I’m curious: how would you describe the range of your thoughts in the short span of time since your cancer was detected, in what ways did it prompt you to reflect on your addiction recovery, and what takeaways are you pondering now as you rest and recover?
Getting the cancer diagnosis was surreal. As you can imagine, I was terrified at first. I found out at 5:15 pm on the Friday of 4th-of-July week. I was sitting on my porch working on my laptop when I got a text that said “You have a new test result in MyChart.” Reading the word “cancer” in the online portal was like a punch to the gut. In the two hours it took to get my doctor on the phone that evening, I cried a lot, Googled a lot, and prayed a lot. When my doctor finally called, she apologized profusely, saying that cancer diagnoses are supposed to be delivered over the phone by an actual human, not just reported in MyChart. She called it “a flaw in the system.” Clearly. But once we got through that, she helped settle my nerves by explaining what the diagnosis most likely meant for me, which was far from my worst fears. In the three weeks between my diagnosis and my surgery, a total hysterectomy, which is referred to as the “definitive cure” for endometrial cancer that hasn’t spread, I moved through a range of thoughts and feelings about my life and recovery. It was easy to count my blessings through the whole ordeal: thank god I’m in recovery and don’t have to try to quit drinking or smoking before having major surgery, thank god I have so much love and support in my life, thank god I have great health insurance, thank god I am otherwise healthy and fit, thank god I didn’t ignore the light bleeding I was experiencing in early July.
The fact that I got this checked out rather than ignoring it is actually quite profound. Cancer is all about early detection and even my doctor said that many women ignore early signs of uterine cancer, which usually presents as post-menopausal bleeding. They ignore it because they chalk it up to a hormonal fluke that will go away on its own, or because they can’t be bothered, or because they don’t have health insurance, or because it’s too scary to investigate because “what if the news is bad?” I came close to ignoring it. But, my recovery has taught me to pay attention to myself and to listen when my inner voice tells me something is off or needs tending to. Using was all about “checking out” for me — escaping, numbing, not having to feel. In recovery, I’ve honed the skill of checking in, paying attention, felling it all. This intuitive sense of feeling and knowing is the most valuable skill I have. It’s about being able to tune in and know what’s going on and ask myself what do I need? What do I want? What can I do? What can I tolerate? What can I actually control here? What are my values and how do I stand up for them? Whether it’s cancer I’m facing or difficult conversations or grief or joy, I want to do it all through a lens and experience of recovery.
What does addiction recovery look like for you personally, and what does it mean to you to be a recovery advocate?
For me, personally, addiction recovery looks like not using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco or nicotine products. I use several modalities and approaches to maintain abstinence from drugs (including tobacco) and alcohol including yoga, strength training, running, a 12-Step program, meditation, creative arts (knitting, drawing, and painting), and social connection. I used to think that my recovery was only about not using and my involvement in AA, and that these other activities were just things I liked to do, but I now realize that fitness, creativity, and relationships play a significant and direct role in my recovery from addiction. These activities keep me grounded, calm my nervous system, and help temper the stress that’s part of life. They give me the relief that alcohol or pot or cigarettes used to provide without the unpredictability and shame and spiral that almost always comes with using substances (for me). I’m lucky that I’ve found a healthy way of coping when things feel overwhelming and that I’ve found ways to enjoy myself and connect and feel good without using substances.
Being a recovery advocate means being public about my past struggles with substances and my recovery success. I consider it a gift to let the world know that recovery is possible and that recovery is personal — it means different things to different people. I fight for my own recovery in very personal ways every day that work for me: by going to the gym or practicing yoga or connecting with others, and I fight for other people’s recovery in ways that look very different from that: by getting involved in recovery advocacy organizations or public policy. Simply taking care of myself and nurturing my recovery and sharing it with others is a powerful and meaningful form of recovery advocacy, as is doing something more visible like organizing a walk team for Minnesota Recovery Connection’s upcoming Recovery Month Walk for Recovery. That’s the beauty of recovery advocacy: you can do it in big and small ways that all matter.
One of many things I admire about you is the diverse ways you’ve been able to contribute to the recovery and recovery advocacy communities in Minnesota and nationally. You founded the first recovery community organization in Minnesota — Minnesota Recovery Connection. You served on the national board of Faces and Voices of Recovery. You were a recovery support and alumni relations leader at Hazelden Betty Ford. You provide consultation services to SAMHSA. You worked at The Phoenix, which fosters recovery through fitness and personal connection, and founded your own coaching business Hurley Health. And you work for StepUP, one of the most storied and impactful collegiate recovery programs in U.S. That’s a lot of different roles — all with a common purpose. What has guided your pursuits, and how have you balanced your personal recovery with your professional goals and responsibilities?
You nailed it with the word “purpose.” Recovery is my purpose and I’ve been lucky to have been involved in so many incredible organizations and groups and events that support individuals in recovery and build communities of recovery. I’ve gravitated toward all these organizations and activities like a moth to a flame — I can’t help myself! I think it’s because I’ve experienced the hopeful transformation that recovery creates in life and I’ve witnessed so many other people go through it too. In my teens and 20s, I was drinking in a way that just wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t on a good path, and I sometimes think about what would have happened to me if I had continued down that road. A lot of people make it into recovery, but a lot of people don’t, so I don’t take my recovery for granted. I want as many people as possible to have the chance to heal and realize their potential. I so totally believe that all people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole, and my life purpose is to help people tap into that power. Each professional role I’ve had working in the field since 2009 has allowed me to use my gifts to lift up recovery. I’ve had some hard jobs, and trust me when I say there are days I want to walk away from it, but I don’t think I ever will. It means too much to me.
StepUP at Augsburg University is amazing — a place for college students in recovery to live and be socially, professionally, and academically supported. What has it meant to you to be part of the StepUP community and to connect with so many young people in recovery? And what will it take to one day get every college and university in the world to support a collegiate recovery program and community?
My own recovery journey started when I was in college, when I was just 19 years old. It was difficult to find recovery on a college campus back then. I felt alone in my sobriety and I felt like drinking and partying were just part of the “normal” college experience. When I thought of college, I thought of classes, football games, books, dorm life, and drinking. That stereotype holds for many people today. But, we have a saying at StepUP where we believe no one should have to choose between a college education and recovery. The fact that StepUP students can grow and thrive in their recovery while going to school — the fact that these students can be proud of their recovery and lead with it rather than hide it — means so much to me. Working with young people who are learning how to live sober and figuring out who they are, gaining confidence as they succeed in their classes, and changing so much every week … well, it’s just really rewarding for me to see the transformation happening. It’s going to take lot to one day get every college and university to support a collegiate recovery program and community. It’s going to take funding of course, but more importantly, it’s going to take the recognition that students in recovery, or those who simply choose not to use substances for any other reason, belong on college campuses. It’s going to take the continuation of all the recovery advocacy efforts happening across the country to bring visibility and value to the recovery that’s already happening in communities everywhere.
You are a certified life coach and also a certified health and fitness coach with your own coaching business, Hurley Health Coaching. What has physical activity meant to your own life in recovery, and what’s the opportunity for everyone in recovery when it comes to moving the body more, eating better, etc.?
Physical activity has given me access to recovery for sure. It’s been the thing, more than anything, that has kept me rooted in recovery because it gives me an outlet. I think one of the biggest reasons I used substances was because I was seeking relief from something — stress, sadness, uncertainty, whatever. For some, like me, experiencing human emotions can be overwhelming. Substances help with that. But then they don’t. Movement always helps me. Over the years I’ve replaced substances with running, yoga, and strength training as a way to help temper and process the “human experience,” which keeps me from having to reach for a drink. My sobriety then gives me access to so much more — relationships and experiences I wouldn’t otherwise be able to handle. As a coach, I encourage everyone to incorporate some type of movement into the recovery process. You don’t have to do CrossFit or become a competitive athlete. Just move! Go for a walk and do some stretching. Sign up for a basic, level-one yoga class. Pick up a jump rope. Walk the dog a little faster than you normally would. Increased fitness is available to everyone, and taking care of your physical health improves your mental health. You can’t really have one without the other.
While you are still quite young, you’ve lived long enough to reach some difficult moments that often come with age. You lost your dear father not that long ago. You’ve become an empty-nester. Now, cancer. And, of course — something I can relate to — your hair turned gray. I think a lot of people were inspired by your decision a year or two ago to stop dying your hair and embrace the gray. How would you describe the experience of growing older in recovery or even, as some might say about a 25-year recovery vet, growing into a recovery old-timer?
Ha! It’s true, no one is immune to the march of time. I tuned 54 earlier this month. I took my last drink at age 27. I smoked my last cigarette when I was 33. My mother, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer and COPD in 2016. That could have easily been me, too. I choose recovery every day. Every day I do what I need to do to nurture my physical and mental wellbeing. Sometimes it feels like a lot of work, and if I’m being honest, sometimes I think it would just be easier to take a gummie or have a glass of wine than have to do all this other stuff, but I also know it doesn’t work that way for me. I’ve become older (and grayer) and wiser in recovery, but only because I’ve given myself the chance to practice it, one day at a time, over and over. And over. And . . . over. Time has actually been on my side in this regard.
You’re asking a big question, Jeremiah! and words fail me when I try to express my gratitude for my recovery or even my experience of recovery. All I can say is that I’m thankful for my life in recovery with all its ups and downs, losses and failures, joys and successes. For all the good decisions and mistakes I’ve made. For all the miles I’ve run, for all the meetings I’ve attended, for all the times I’ve raised my hand to help another person, for the loss of my parents, for the divorce I went through in 2006, for all the jobs I’ve had, and bills I’ve paid, for the raising of my son as a sober mom, for falling in love with and then losing my dog Peony the same year my mom died, for all the savasanas that have held me, for all the times I chose to just breathe and cry or yell rather than pick up again, for all the times I’ve just done my best, for winning the step-kid lottery, for William (husband William C. Moyers) with all his maddening quirks and for all his love, for all the times I’ve shown up, for every AA cliché that I’ve ultimately embraced, for all the burpees and squats and for all the BS that comes with being human. What can I say? I wouldn’t have it any other way.