Saturday Spotlight- Denise McKeon

Name: Denise McKeon (aka Dee)
Age: 41
Occupation: Speech Language Pathologist
Family: husband Chris Dycka, 3 sons Ty 9, Ryan 7 and Brett 5

I was born in Northern New Jersey before most people used the words ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I am the youngest of three girls from a very loud, Italian family. My father and both sisters have varying degrees of clinically significant OCD. This is very different from just the anal personality type most people think of when they think OCD. Since I was old enough to remember, my father has been in counseling because his obsessions and compulsions as well as certain phobias impacted his ability to live. One of my Dad’s issues was broken glass. I was a child back in the time that most things (including soda bottles) were in glass, not plastic containers and I was especially hyper and clumsy. My father had a terrible temper and my clumsiness around glass eventually made me petrified to step foot in the kitchen. The doctor agreed that I was unusually hyper and clumsy. What kind of diagnosis is that?! He recommended putting me on medication but my mother refused. His next recommendation was to put me in sports. I tried everything (track, gymnastics, color guard, skiing, cheer, softball, swimming, biking)! I was decent at everything, but never great at anything. I remember exercising for hours and hours and getting a rush out of how long I could continue. I would run miles in cross country practice and then come home and do two of my mom’s Jane Fonda aerobic videos (I’m totally showing my age lol). Or I would run and bike as many times around Lake Parsippany as I could before it got dark. Little did I know that one day I’d be friends with Ironmen that would make those days look like short workouts!

When I wasn’t working on getting out my “extra energy” and trying to avoid breaking glass, I really enjoyed volunteering and had a large number of incredible experiences because of it. Since I was a huge Yankee fan, I decided I wanted to volunteer to work with people with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). I signed up as a candy striper for the local hospital at age 13 and told them what I wanted to do. They warned me that it could be very depressing, and I would watch people die. I insisted that I could handle it, and they allowed me to go to the respiratory rehab unit. I played checkers with the patients, wrote letters home that they dictated to me, read them stories, you name it. The speech, physical and occupational therapists all worked with me to teach me things I could do with the residents. I loved it and knew I wanted to be a therapist. One thing that struck me though is how young some of the patients were. They would tell me stories about life before they became sick, and I learned something that would be reinforced throughout my life: The ability to be active was more than just an outlet for my energy, it was a privilege.

As I grew older, my home life became more stressful than I could bear. I left my parents’ house during my senior year of high school. I was determined to finish high school, college and graduate school living on my own. I worked as a waitress and bartender in addition to a variety of other jobs (newspaper, radio, marketing, research) to put myself through school. In addition to all the second-hand smoke at the bar, I had become a smoker myself and was no longer as active as I had been as a kid. Serving had a big impact on shaping the person I am today. It made me very open minded which set the stage for many people to open up to me…and my life is very rich because of it.

One day while waitressing, a friend confided in me that she was transfused by the NY Blood Bank with blood that was HIV positive while having back surgery at 12 years old. She had a trial coming up in NYC and wanted me to put my entire life on hold to attend with her each day. I did. I grew very close with her family, and one day her mother cried to me because she was so grief struck. My friend and I had always talked about going rock climbing after the trial but we never did. Two years later, my friend and her sister were in a car crash. My friend with HIV survived but her sister didn’t. My friend couldn’t attend her own sister’s funeral because her condition wasn’t stable enough at the time. She couldn’t think of anything worse than not being at the funeral and asked if I would go on her behalf so that she could feel like she was there in spirit. I did. There are no words to explain how I felt hugging and crying with that same mother, now heartbroken over a different daughter. Since that day, I have been grateful every day of my life, not just for the good experiences but for the bad ones too. At least I’m experiencing whatever it is and not in a hospital bed. She sustained injuries in that car crash and will now never be able to rock climb. It was another important reminder for me to take advantage of my physical abilities and enjoy them today. I had an unusually large number of friends with similar tragic stories of lives cut short and debilitating illnesses. I make sure not to dwell on the fear of “what if” but instead to embrace how lucky I am every day.
Fast forward to a year and a half ago. My husband and I signed up for the State Park Summer Run series because we both had friends doing it. Our kids were getting bigger, and we decided it was time to get a babysitter and enjoy a date night each week during the summer. Toward the end of the summer run series Colleen McKillop asked “Have you ever considered running anything longer?” I assumed she meant the last race of the series which was 5 miles. Nope. She meant a half marathon. I told her she was crazy but she ignored me and asked our other friends. They agreed and so I hopped on board figuring I could always walk with the other girls if I got tired. Colleen told me to let her know when I could run 6 miles, and she would bring me to the Hills. I went with her and was hooked immediately! I was so happy and felt a rush the whole entire day! I signed up for the Entenmann’s half marathon in October 2013. When race day rolled around I had terrible bronchitis. I still went to the race to cheer on my husband and friends but I was so sick I couldn’t walk from the parking lot to the starting line without sitting down. I trained so hard. I refused to not have a half marathon under my belt. I signed up for the Brrrrooklyn half marathon in January 2014. I didn’t know anyone else doing it, but I was determined to make sure my training for Entenmann’s wasn’t wasted. It was a bitter cold, freezing day. It took me over 2 hours to finish but I was happy to say I completed it. I officially had the bug and continued to run small races, the summer run series and two sprint triathlons in 2014. In the fall I signed up for both the Hamptons Marathon in September and the NYC marathon in November. I struggled significantly with the first marathon, despite the fact that I was well trained. I was determined to run the entire NYC marathon and still feel strong (but tired) at the end. It was an amazing experience. Training with so many friends, the bus ride with my training buddies, running a good portion of the way with Colleen, and the crowd cheering and giving so much support and energy were among the highlights of the day. The truth of it is, it wasn’t just amazing that day. I felt on cloud nine for about a month after!
Looking ahead, I’m not sure what awaits but I am so thankful to be surrounded by other wonderfully, like-minded people who recognize how lucky we are to be able to enjoy our health and have fun doing it! The group has meant the world to me and I’m so grateful to Lou for fostering such camaraderie within the group, and to all of you for being such supportive, encouraging and fun training partners.

Oh, and my relationship with my parents is great now. Dad is doing better too. Ever since my husband brought a 6 pack of beer in BOTTLES, my Dad makes sure the house is well stocked with CANS of beer for our visits.

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