By Brennan Barnard for the Monitor, June 17
As I grabbed my daypack and headed out the door to fight the commuter traffic down to Boston, I was halted by the “sneak attack hug” that has become my 8-year-old son’s signature sendoff. This embrace emphasized the value of what my day would hold, as this is an opportunity that Denis Asselin will never again have.
I was to spend the day walking with Denis, an inspirational father and educator, on one of the last legs of his 552-mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Boston in memory of his son, Nathaniel. This journey was part catharsis and part mission to bring awareness to obsessive compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder, the diseases that plagued his son every day starting when he was 11 years old until he took his life in April 2011.
Though he was born and raised in New Hampshire, I met Denis in Philadelphia, where I taught his two children and worked with his wife, Judy. Nathaniel was wise beyond his years, one of those old souls whom others turn to for guidance and friendship. He was bright, gentle and motivated and genuinely cared about the people in his life. What no one could know was the power of the internal conflicts that ruled his thoughts and behaviors. Even Nathaniel himself was not aware of the power these diseases had over him.
While the notion of having obsessions and compulsions is understood by some, body dysmorphia is a different beast and a mystery to many. People suffering from this illness become preoccupied with a perceived inadequacy in their appearance to the point that they cannot function in the world. BDD can manifest itself as an overwhelming fear that you are too thin, weak, fat, short, bald or wrinkled. Nathaniel, a tall, handsome, fit young man wrestled with an eating and exercise disorder when he was younger and as the disease progressed, began to believe that his complexion was flawed. He was debilitated by hours spent in front of mirrors examining his skin. This popular friend to all was paralyzed by social situations and dropped out of high school.
After two hours of reflection and traffic, I arrived in Newton, Mass., where I rendezvoused with Denis and a former student of his who would join us in the second-to-last leg of the journey.
The idea for this trek had first surfaced the previous spring. In the weeks after Nathaniel’s death, Denis, Judy and their daughter Carrie traveled to Spain to follow the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a spiritual pilgrimage that concludes at the Cathedral of St. James in northwest Spain. Struggling with the loss of his son, Denis was searching for a way forward. He felt called to embark on a pilgrimage of his own that might help him
make sense of his grief and the way leading forward. What surfaced was the “Camino de Nathaniel,” with a goal of raising money and awareness to help combat the disorders that eventually claimed his son’s life. As Denis acknowledges, the illnesses stole Nathaniel’s life long before he committed suicide.
On the anniversary of Nathaniel’s death in April, Denis left their home in Pennsylvania and began walking, stopping along the way to visit significant landmarks from the 24 years that Nathaniel lived. The terminus of this journey was Boston, where Nathaniel had sought help at McLean Hospital, one of the leaders in the field of treatment and research of obsessive compulsive disorders.
Though I had followed Denis’s progress on his blog (walkingwithnathaniel.org), nothing could prepare me for the flood of emotion I felt as I walked by his side 13 miles from Newton to Belmont’s McLean Hospital on a gray, drizzly morning in early June. After seven miles, we arrived at the hotel where they had stayed the evening before Nathaniel checked in at the hospital for intensive treatment. With brown paper taped to the room’s mirrors to prevent Nathaniel’s compulsion to check his complexion, they settled in, enjoyed a dinner together and took a walk. Little did they know that days later, Nathaniel would leave the facility, unable to cope with the intensity of the program. We were welcomed with open arms by the staff at the hotel whose faces dropped as Denis explained the nature of his visit. As we walked on, Denis shared with us vivid memories that he had of his time there with his son. I yearned to draw my own son close and not let him go.