The latest entry in our OCD Awareness Week guest blog series comes from Denis and Judy Asselin. When it comes to showcasing unique approaches to advocacy, the Asselin family undoubtedly stands out. Denis has walked hundreds of miles from his home in Pennsylvania to destinations such as Boston and Washington D.C. in honor of his son, Nathaniel. Nathaniel took his life at the age of 24 after struggling with OCD and severe body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Denis started walking to spread Nathaniel’s story to those he met along the way and raise money to support BDD and OCD research and awareness. Denis and his wife, Judy, recently embarked on their first overseas challenge to continue raising awareness. Below is their incredibly inspiring story about what they learned and experienced on their latest journey.
Our recent pilgrimage in Italy from Rome to Assisi differed from Denis’ earlier walks to share our son Nathaniel’s struggle with BDD and to expand awareness about brain disorders and inspire research; it was shorter (a mere 150 miles!), took place outside of the US, and involved both of us. This was also our first travel experience since retiring from teaching, so we were simultaneously covering other bases: beautiful location, warm weather, and time away from day-to-day concerns in the company of dear friends and each other.
As a bit of background to this particular journey, Denis has always felt a deep connection with St. Francis and often expressed his wish to be in Assisi for his Feast Day, October 4. Francis walked the same route in 1209 but in reverse to petition the Pope to start a religious order rooted in simplicity and in the profound interconnection of all living things. Many of his contemporaries thought he was crazy (As many would today, and as some also characterize the current Pope Francis, who professes similar ideas), but 800 years ago, Pope Innocent III recognized Francis’ integrity and gave permission for the Franciscan order to be formed. Today, St. Francis is the most recognized saint in the world with a message that couldn’t be more timely.
While traveling the Cammino di San Francesco, the famed pilgrimage route between Rome and Assisi, we kept encountering this St. Francis quotation on coffee mugs or wall plaques: “Preach the gospel every day. Use words if necessary.” This strikes us as very similar to Quaker founder George Fox’s admonition to “Let your life speak.” Regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, living in a manner that is congruent with one’s deepest values is surely the key to a happy and fulfilling life. The hundreds of miles we have walked in the past four years is our way to honor Nathaniel’s struggle and spread awareness about BDD, OCD, and other brain disorders. We let each step we take be our new gospel. Advocacy for us is to move forward and to model that option for others, not only during OCD Awareness Week but also every day of the year. Simply said, walking for awareness has become our new advocacy, commitment, and vocation.
Let us explain. As our pilgrimage unfolded, moments arose nearly every day when it felt right to share Nathaniel’s and our family’s story. We had cards with us about the walkingwithnathaniel.org website and despite our lack of Italian, the essentials came across to those we met — the Franciscan postulant, Paolo, who welcomed us in Rome; the retired Italian biology teacher, Giuseppe, who hosted us at his B&B in Ponticelli; Elna Angelina, who rescued Judy from her hiking misery outside Rieti; the American Franciscan Father Paul in Assisi who took all the cards we had on hand to give to his whole tour group; the Quebecois couple we kept bumping into in Cinque Terre; the Iranian graduate student, Yasser, who shared his apartment with us in Milan. The list grew, and all were touched to learn a bit about Nathaniel and his struggles.
We have no idea where those connections will lead but if the past is any indicator, we will be surprised by ongoing communication with many of these new friends, and the network will grow that connects sufferers, researchers, families, and decision makers. Even the smallest effort can have an impact.
We would be remiss not to add that we also got to eat lots of great pasta and gelato, sip wine and espresso, try out our fledgling Italian, belly laugh daily with our friends, swim in the Mediterranean in October, and build amazing leg muscles on the Umbrian hills. It was divine.
Judy and Denis Asselin, Pilgrims