Walking for Nathaniel—Denis Asselin’s Pilgrimage
By Trina Vaux '63
On Tuesday, April 24, 2012, Denis Asselin – former Shipley French teacher and Honorary Alumnus – walked out his front door and embarked on an old-fashioned pilgrimage—a 487-mile walk from Philadelphia to Boston with numerous stops along the way. The pilgrimage—“not a trip or a hike, but a journey,” says Denis—is in honor of his son Nathaniel, who died last year after a 13-year battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (OCD/BDD). Denis’ goal is to raise awareness of OCD/BDD, a crippling brain disease, and raise money for the International OCD Foundation. (For information on OCD/BDD, go to www.ocfoundation.org and www.BDDclinic.com.)
The road to Denis’ current journey began right after Nathaniel’s death in April, 2011. Pondering “how to make sense of the senseless,” Denis happened on some advice from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “To deal with grief, walk!” So Denis walked. He walked around his neighborhood and then, last May, with his wife Judy and daughter Carrie, he spent two weeks walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. On reaching the end of the Camino, “I just had a lot of walk left in me,” he says. “It felt grounding to me and the more I walked, the more grounded I felt.”
Denis’ East Coast journey, a kind of “Camino de Nathaniel,” came out of the Spanish experience. He will follow the trail of Nathaniel’s life, from his school days to the clinics and medical facilities where he was treated, to places where he worked. The pilgrimage ends in Boston on June 6 at the International OCD Foundation. Along the way, Denis will talk at gatherings of caregivers and professionals, sharing his experience as a parent of someone with OCD/BDD, putting a face on the disease.
Nathaniel first showed signs of the disorder when he was 11 years old in fifth grade. In the years between fifth grade and Nathaniel’s death at age 24, Denis and Judy worked assiduously to find treatments for him. It was a roller coaster life. But there were always bright points. “He was so intelligent, perceptive, gentle, and loving,” says Denis. “He was the Pied Piper” at Westtown, where he worked in the Middle School after-school program and was a cross country coach. Denis believes that there is a positive side to Nathaniel’s hyper-sensitivity. “There was a gift part. He was so aware of the kids, where they were, and what they were feeling.”
“This is a story of hope,” says Denis. “The metaphor of walking is to move on. I chose this time of year because I want to follow the spring north, because to me it’s opening and possibilities. I like that kind of image of walking to the rising sun.”
You can track Denis's progress and read about his journey at www.walkingwithnathaniel.org. To donate to the International OCD Foundation, go to www.ocfoundation.org/donate.
View photos from Denis's visit to and sendoff from Shipley.