OCD Awareness Week – October 2015


Our recent pilgrimage in Italy from Rome to Assisi differed from Denis’s 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!), was not in the US, and had Judy along. 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.

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’s integrity and gave permission for the Franciscan order to be formed. Today, he is the most recognized saint in the world, and his message couldn’t be more timely.

imageWhile traveling the Cammino di San Francesco, we kept encountering this 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 indicating 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                                      October 15 2015

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Day 15: Assisi, Italy

The Days After

imageAfter Saturday’s intensity, we settle into a day in Assisi. Tim and Terri catch an early train to Rome for a flight home on Monday, and we wander the city taking in the churches at every piazza and the medieval architecture everywhere, speckled with Roman columns and friezes. It feels odd not to have our packs on our backs and a destination in mind, and we miss our Cammino companions.

Sunday Mass at St. Clare’s is packed, and we try to follow the homily in Italian. I pick up “love” and “San Francesco” about two dozen times. That about covers it.

imageMidday meal at the Friar’s house in Assisi is an elaborate affair put together by Sandro, consummate chef and entertainer. There are 9 of us for a 5 course meal–antipasto with truffles, pasta, veal, pork and potatoes, homemade sponge cake, coffee and all of it topped off with limoncello di casa. Needless to say, we feel no need for much supper later, but do manage to squeeze in a gelato before attending a free concert in the crypt of St. Rufino. Five very talented musicians with perfectly blending voice and playing various medieval instruments present 12th and 13th century music from the time of St. Francis.

The following morning, we head back to the Basilica to see the Giotto frescos which we missed the day before. The entire interior of both upper and lower churches of the basilica is covered with frescos framed by ornately painted arches and vaults, making the whole building one enormous painting.

imageToday we head to Florence, and then Cinque Terre, before going home on the 10th via Dublin. But before we leave Assisi, our last stop is St. Mary of the Angels Basilica to receive our official pilgrims’ certificates. Pilgrimage complete, we re-enter the everyday world full of gratitude for the chance to visit this beautiful country, for the warm welcome we have received everywhere, for our legs which took us the whole way, and for our families and friends–especially Tim and Terri–who shared the journey with us. 10/06/2015image

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Day 14: Spello to Assisi (10 miles)

Inside and Out: the Journey and the Destination

imageThis evening in Assisi, Tim, Terri, Denis and Judy–awestruck pilgrims–watch the setting sun shine gold on the Basilica di San Francesco. The church and piazza rise 100 feet above the surrounding valley and the whole scene is surreal, stunning. We soak it in, then walk to a choice dinner spot where Terri can finally order wild boar. More on that theme later.


Let’s wind the clock back twelve hours; we depart for Assisi from Spello in enormously high spirits. Our host at the medieval hotel where we are staying gets up at 6:30 to put out a massive breakfast spread for us (“Not what Italians usually eat,” he explains.) We down hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, cereal, juice, cornetti, other pastries, and two coffees apiece — heck, we are carb loading for a hard walk up Monte Subasio. We share Nathaniel’s story with our host, thank him for his profound hospitality, and he directs us to the Cammino route which runs right by the hotel patio.

Mist recedes from the sleepy town of Spello as we climb and the view is spectacular, magical. We ascend steadily to 900 meters in only a few km and are already working hard, but loving it. Our legs say, “We can do this!” There had been some discussion the night before about taking the lower route (there are two trails from Spello to Assisi) to spare Judy’s knee, but she is eager for the higher climb, since the descent into Assisi is a gradual one.

The route leaves the ridge and dips into woods, taking us into deep shade on trails padded with fallen leaves. Sign confusion stumps us at several intersections, but we think we are on the right track until we realize that we are going downhill steadily. Before we know it, we have lost the elevation we worked so hard to gain and are now on the lower trail, leaving the high road behind (with its magnificent approach to Assisi). We take a side road directly up the mountain again to try to find the higher route, but to no avail. Why should the last day be any different than previous days? Getting onto the wrong trail seems to be a common theme. Is there a metaphor here? Are all trails the right trail?

imageAs we finally approach Assisi on the lower route, we traverse a ridge of the mountain closer to the valley and begin to pass houses as we re-enter civilization. “Attenti al Cani” is a sign we have seen hundreds of times over the past two weeks, and most refer to dogs behind fences that bark at us as we passed. Today, a friendly (we thought) German Shepherd follows behind us a short way on the trail — no bark, no growl — and as we pass by his family’s gate, he lunges and bites Terri soundly on the left calf. What?! Stunned, we tend to her wounds, and are reassured to see that they probably won’t need stitches, but they definitely warrant medical attention and antibiotics. We are 2 km from Assisi. So close.

For the second time this week, we are stopped in our tracks by life’s fragility and unpredictability. Earlier in the week, we had learned that our daughter Carrie had badly dislocated her elbow after a rock climbing fall and had to have surgery yesterday. We have Skyped often with her, and the surgery was not as extensive as expected, but how we wish could be with her and lift her pain. As Terri said while we were cleaning up her bite wounds, “I can identify with Carrie. Did she also think, ‘Why me?!'”

The dog owner drives Terri and Tim to the nearby clinic/hospital while Judy and Denis finish the walk, crestfallen. Outside the city gates, we eat a sorry lunch of stale cheese sticks and snack bars while we watch high school students stream out of school (Saturday morning classes, imagine), and when we finally pass through Porta Nuova into the old city, we feel no elation. At least we’re here, along with thousands of other tourists and souvenir shops every 10 feet. But no TnT! Our pilgrim cohort has been ruptured, and that is when the truth dawns: the cammino destination is not the point. The shrines, the pomp, the Basilicas built for saints are second to the journey itself, where we test ourselves, handle hardship, connect with friends, share laughter, relish a good meal and a warm bed — these are the gifts.

imageWhen we reconnect with T n T later in the afternoon at St. Mary of the Angels outside the gates, they report that the hospital visit went smoothly. No charge, as the business office was closed. (Wow, free medical care even for international guests. The antibiotic is 2.5 euros). We watch the long procession into the church for the Transitus of St. Francis, then head back to the old city for the sunset at the Basilica and a celebratory dinner. Terri orders the boar, and we decide that we need to enliven the day’s story by insinuating a wild boar attack. Denis suggests the wounds are Terri’s stigmata. We share a bottle of good Assisi wine, and by dinner’s end, Terri declares, “What dog?” All’s Well That Ends Well, but what a day of highs and lows.image

Hard to believe our pilgrimage is over, but we will be feasting on the memories forever. Thank you, Tim and Terri, for joining us on this crazy adventure. Your companionship was treasured. 10/04/2015


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Day 13: Trevi to Foligno to Spello (11.5 miles)

imageAloha-eve as the Nicholson Family says–the day before the big one and tomorrow is definitely the big one both in elevation and difficulty as well as our final destination. Today is supposed to be a cake-walk according to the camino guide, but it still feels like an eternal over-the-river-and-through-the-olive groves trek. Our motivational carrot today is the town of Foligno, a medieval gem as well as home to great pizza, where we break the long journey for lunch–beauty for the eyes, food for the body, including more gelato, because we deserve it!

The camino blue/yellow paint markings make an abundant if uneven appearance to affirm our route. We fantasize that Camino volunteers get assigned 10 markers to place strategically on the trail. Then the noon church bell rings, and off they go to lunch, installing their remaining signs within a half-mile radius.

imageThe main square in Foligno is breathtaking. We imagine St. Francis coming here to sell off bolts of cloth from his father’s collection to repair the ruined San Damino church in Assisi, taking literally his vision’s mandate to “Repair my church!” Of course, the imperative had a bigger significance. We four feel equally moved to sell off our backpacks. But we don’t. After lunch they feel the heaviest.

imageSpello is equally charming, our hotel hosts more than welcoming, and our afternoon wide open to explore the town. Romanesque churches abound in their gorgeous simplicity, and it is not hard to imagine life here 1,000 year ago. It is intoxicatingly beautiful. As we arrive at our last hotel stop together, we pause to relish the moment. 10/2/2015image

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Day 12: Spoleto to Trevi (11.25 miles)

imageIt’s October 1–Rabbit, Rabbit! Like energizer bunnies, we jump out of bed by 6 and leave town by 7 sans breakfast. As forecast, it’s raining, an opportunity to test our rain gear. We ditched our umbrellas days ago–too much weight. Today’s segment takes us trough La Zona Industriale, a harsh contrast to yesterday’s landscape. Occasional bike paths steer us away, thankfully, from the urban traffic. Like dangling carrots for donkeys, two breakfasts with caffelattes and cornetti move us forward. Love those Italian pastries. imageA flat trail eases our sore body parts–achilles tendon for Tim, knees for Terri, big toe nails and knee for Judy, and a hip for Denis. Never a slogan more apt– “Walk it off!” so we do and it does. After the rainy morning along busy roads, we walk hillsides among olive groves, with panoramic views of the valley. An early arrival in Trevi gives us time to explore the town before we look for a dinner spot. Getting to know Tim and Terri even better on our rambles continues to be a highlight. We are two days’ walk from Assisi–a reason to celebrate.





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