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The First Step to Start the Trail: A Father's 500 Mile Plus Journey in Memory of His Son

Updated on July 8, 2012

If you have a child, what are you willing to do to protect him or her from harm? Regardless of the choice you as a parent make, you see that child as integral part of your life. You want that child to grow happy, to bring happiness to the lives of others, and most important of all to live. No parent ever wants to live through the nightmare of ever having to bury their own child.

Sadly, a loving father named Denis Asselin has lived through such a nightmare. However, he has taken his grief to raise awareness for the condition that led to his son’s passing so that others will not have to go through the same ordeal.

On June 5, the Boston Globe reported on the life of young man named Nathaniel that was cut short by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The son of Denis Asselin was considered to be very energetic. He was athletic and also surrounded by friends. However, by the time he turned 11, he began to stress out about his weight. When he reached fifth grade, he severely restricted his diet. According to his mother, he would not eat anything that contained any amount of fat or sugar.

By the time he went to high school, his condition worsened. He would spend many hours in front of the bathroom mirror, agonizing over the mere sight of pimples. “If he’d get a slight blemish or nick himself shaving, he would think it was hideous,” remarked his mother. By the time he reached tenth grade, he dropped out of school and often would not leave the house over the disgust of his appearance.

Nathaniel had attended several therapy sessions and was given anti-depressants to treat his condition. At one point, his therapist was able to diagnose his condition as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is a severe form of OCD. This condition can cause the individual to have serious obsessions over one’s body image, making certain appearances such as scratches or other skin flaws appear hideous to the individual.

The treatments offered did little to help Nathaniel overcome his condition. By the time he reached 24, he took his own life. Denis was devastated by the loss. However, he wanted to find some way to channel his grief towards a cause that would prevent other families from suffering the same tragedy.

On June 8, CNN issued a report, detailing the walk that Dennis took in his son’s memory. However, it was not merely limited to a Saturday morning charity walk. Dennis started from his home in Philadelphia and finished in Boston. He walked a over 500 miles and took 45 days to complete his trek.

The article credits Denis' success through the founding of his website: “Walking with Nathaniel." The website gives vivid details of Nathaniel’s life, describing him as someone who had “…an intense curiosity about the world, exploring it eagerly.” He was also an active volunteer. In one case, he served as an Assistant Director for an after school program at Westown Middle School. Nathaniel was referred to his students as, “funny and kind, an inspiration - a friend as well as a teacher.” The page also contains photos of Nathaniel and testimonials of people who shared fond memories of him.

Other features of the website include details of Denis’ walk, specifically where he went to visit. These stops included hospitals, schools, and treatment facilities. In addition, the website contains a wealth of information regarding BDD and organizations like the International OCD Foundation that are working to find the cure for BDD. More information can be found at the link below:

Walking with Nathaniel

The CNN article indicates that according to the 2010 study from the journal of Archives of General Psychiatry, it is believed that between 1 to 2 percent of population is known to have BDD. This small case number has made it difficult for medical experts to fully understand the effects of the condition much less how to properly treat it.

However, this did not prevent Denis Asselin from bringing public awareness to the condition. Through his website was able to raise $17,000 for the International OCD Foundation. In addition, he was able to bring over 150 people to his rally at his final stop in Boston. Many of these people where patients suffering from some form of OCD including BDD. Emails had poured into Denis' inbox via the website, expressing their condolences for his loss and the deep gratitude they had for bringing this disorder to light.

Endo Calo, a broadcast journalist student from Emerson College, covered the rally in a video she uploaded to YouTube on June 11. In the video, she shows Denis giving a speech to the rally supporters about why he did this walk:

“Nathaniel was indeed extraordinary and he simply didn’t deserve to suffer OCD or BDD. No one ever deserves this kind of mental suffering and pain in life. I did this walk because I had to do this walk. With each step I took, I released the pain of the loss of my son. I pounded my deep anger into the macadam of the road.”

For some time, people have developed a society standard of what it means to look good and healthy. It certainly can cause a significant amount of stress for some who don't feel good about how their body looks. In time we manage to handle that stress and begin to find ways to improve our health and appearances or at the very least accept how we look.

However, when it comes to this disorder, it’s a different story entirely. Imagine the mental anguish these patients go through when they stare in the mirror for hours on end and scream in their minds: “YOU’RE STILL UGLY!!!” You clean your hands over and over again, but you still see blotches and dirt spots. You run for miles, but panic if you can still pinch a little belly fat between your fingers even if your weight is adequate for your height. You see a cut on your hand and you want it to go away right now because it’s flaw you can’t stand to look at anymore!

Denis had to live through ordeal of watching his son, a boy with a heart of gold, agonize over his looks because his condition did not allow him to see anything different. It didn’t matter to Nathaniel that he touched so many lives when he was around or how successful he was with school and charity work. The disorder made him see nothing but flaws and imperfections that made him ashamed to be a part of society. No one should have to live a life like that…much less die because of it.

Denis was indeed grief-stricken, but he took that grief towards a cause that did so much for Nathaniel and for society. For his son, he showed the world why he loved him so much. He showed that Nathaniel was a smart, energetic, and kind young man who made people feel good no matter where they went. For the community, Denis spoke out a condition that is known by so very few people, yet he has now started a movement to fight against it. That 2 percent of the population can now look in the mirror, love what they see, and show off what they have to the world. They now have that confidence they need to step in the world and say, “This is what I am, everyone, and I’m perfectly happy with that!”

This cause will by no means find a cure for BDD tomorrow, but it is a step in the right direction. Isn’t that how a cause is supposed to be? After all, without taking that first step, humanity would have never found a way to combat smallpox, which was responsible for millions of deaths back in its heyday. Eventually, we were able to fight back. Society has been able to overcome so many ills and trials because someone like Denis was willing to take that first step needed.

When you walk on the beach, it can take a long time to travel from one side of the coastline to the other. However, all it takes is for someone to lay down that first footprint…and eventually create a trail for many others to follow.


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    • gmaoli profile image

      Gianandrea Maoli 5 years ago from South Carolina

      Thank you for the words, pagesvoice! OCD is a pretty foreign thing for me, so I tried get as much information as I could about the condition and what the father did to address this. I'm sorry to hear about the gentleman's dealings with his daughter's anorexia. I'm glad the daughter got the treatment she needed. I can't begin to imagine what it's like for a parent to watch their child suffer and they feel so helpless to do anything about it. That's why it's so important to make these disorders well known to the public because that's how help is found. The more people know about what's going on, the better your chances are of finding someone who has the resources to help combat the problem.

    • pagesvoice profile image

      Dennis L. Page 5 years ago from New York/Pennsylvania border

      Voted up and interesting. You really did your homework on this piece. I can't even begin to imagine what this poor father went through, helplessly watching his son battle the demons of OCD. I worked with a man who had a daughter that suffered from anorexia. I observed him coming to work and trying to get through the day, knowing full well the struggle his daughter was having. Thankfully for him and his daughter she received the treatment needed to turn her life around. Awareness is key to keeping an eye on the pulse of OCD and addressing means of appropriate treatment.