A father’s mission along the Camino de Santiago

Father and son walking the Camino

A father’s mission along the Camino de Santiago

A Father’s Mission 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.Portuguese-Way

I was to spend the day walking with Denis, an inspirational father and educator, on one of the last legs of his 552-mile Camino 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. These diseases plagued his son every day, from 11 years old until he took his life in April 2011. We walked on the Camino Frances.

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 others turn to for guidance and friendship. He was bright, gentle, motivated, and genuinely cared about the people in his life. No one could know the power of the internal conflicts that ruled his thoughts and behaviours. Even Nathaniel was unaware of the power these diseases had over him.

While some understand the notion of having obsessions and compulsions, 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 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 famous 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 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 travelled to Spain to follow the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This spiritual pilgrimage concludes at the Cathedral of St. James in northwest Spain. Struggling with his son’s loss, Denis searched 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” to raise money and awareness to help combat the disorders that eventually claimed his son’s life. Denis acknowledges that 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 grey, 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 program’s intensity. 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 of his time there with his son. I yearned to draw my son close and not let him go.

Please visit our Camino blog for more pilgrim stories like this father’s mission.

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