In late May, Denis Asselin walked along the side of a curved road in rural Pennsylvania, against oncoming traffic. He wore khaki shorts, a white ballcap, and a blue rain jacket. On his back, a black Northface backpack containing several items, including Big, the teddy bear his son Nathaniel toted around as a child.
Asselin was nearly 150 miles from his home in Cheyney, PA, and he had walked the entire way. And he still had 375 miles to go until reaching his destination: downtown Boston. That’s right: He was going to cover 525 miles on foot. Based on an average man's stride, Asselin will take approximately one million steps during his walkabout. I’m sure he had a question for every single step. Questions about what happened, why it happened, when it exactly started, what signs or cues they missed, and where to go from here. Questions that started piling up when Nathaniel was 11, and compounded a thousand fold when he committed suicide last year, at age 24.
Denis Asselin took his first step on April 24, close to the one-year anniversary of his son’s passing. He ended his walk today in Boston. The goal of his journey: to honor his son, and raise awareness about obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), the two mental illnesses Nathaniel had suffered from since age 11.
OCD is relatively well known, having been mined for entertainment purposes countless times (see: Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets; Tony Shaloub in Monk; Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator). But BDD is lesser known, and perhaps more sinister. It’s a condition where you fixate on a perceived physical flaw. It’s like an internal alarm clock set to bully you every minute. One in four get cosmetic surgery or dental enhancements. For sufferers of BDD, the suicide rate is 45 times higher.
Nathaniel saw doctors; he stayed at psychiatric clinics, sleeping with Big for comfort. But before they could find The Answer, Nathaniel took his own life, leaving behind countless friends, family members, and schoolmates to share their stories and testimonials, like the time he and his friend Justin saved three baby raccoons, bundling them up in their shirts for warmth and taking them to an animal shelter.
And so Asselin grieved his lost boy, whom he describes as “fiercely intelligent, unfailingly kind, and universally loved.” And he did it his own way: he walked, inspired by the ancient pilgrimages across Jerusalem, Rome, and Canterbury. He stopped at different landmarks from Nathaniel’s life: his schools, his hospitals, the Good Fellowship Ambulance and EMS Unit where he volunteered. Asselin named his 525-mile route “Camino de Nathaniel,” after the ancient Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Earlier today, at 2:30pm, the 63-year-old father walked into Boston, home of the International OCD Foundation. He was met by a large group of friends and supporters in Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, where they gathered to raise awareness about BDD and OCD.
The walk is over, but there are still a million questions. Denis Asselin is trying to raise awareness, and in turn, find answers. "If you put one foot in front of the other," says Asselin, "you will eventually get somewhere."
Denis Asselin wants us to join him. I believe that's doable. He's not asking us to take one million steps. He's asking us to take one. Start here.