Recovery Stories - Karen Evans

Feed my Sheep

by Karen Evans

"Feed my Sheep ." The voice spoke to Karen in a direct and compelling manner. She was used to paying attention to voices. She had heard her first voice at the age of seventeen. That voice had commanded her to cover her body with lighter fluid and put a match to it. The scars that cover her body from that incident are minor compared to the scars she carries inside.

Karen Evans has been labeled with schizophrenia, thought doesn’t agree with the use of labeling. While she believes that some of her mental health issues may be inherited, she has no doubt that her environment is equally responsible. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended 27 different schools. Her father was in the army, and often gone for long periods of time. Her mother, sick with depression over a younger child she had felt forced to put up for adoption, could no longer care for Karen or her twin sister. There was never any bonding, and often, there was desertion and abandonment. Karen spent her youth shuffling between relatives’ homes, foster homes and orphanages. The abuse, physical, sexual, and mental, that each new placement brought, never ended. In her late teens, when the voices began, she was placed in a number of state mental institutions.

"The horrors that then accompanied placement in state mental institutions were real. Patients were beaten, molested, and never told what had happened to the people who often just disappeared overnight. I was terrified of these places, and took to escaping whenever I had a chance."

Karen’s last escape was from the Maine Insane Hospital (today’s Augusta Mental Health Institute). She took the only job she thought she could do without getting caught, and entered the world’s oldest profession. Falling in love with one of her customers led to a marriage with a man who constantly beat her. Fortunately, her love for her three children fathered by this man kept her from killing herself. One day, she simply picked them up, and deposited her family on a bench in Lincoln Park in Portland, not far from City Hall, hoping someone would heed her cries for help.

This final act of desperation became the catalyst for change. First, the women’s crisis center that took her in offered her a position helping other women in situations like hers. There, she was encouraged to go back to school and obtain a degree. A chance encounter with a local church led to a growing connection with a spiritual side of herself that had never been nurtured. For the first time, Karen began to hear voices that were not destructive.

When the voice that kept saying "Feed my Sheep" would give her no rest, Karen opened the Wayside Evening Soup Kitchen in Portland. Serving the city’s homeless and poor put Karen in touch with other unmet needs of these forgotten citizens. In 1987 she established "Tent City" in front of city Hall, and camped out for three weeks with other homeless people. As a result, officials finally realized the need to establish a shelter system in Portland.

Today, Karen is considered one of the most respected advocates for the needs of those with mental health issues and the poor in our state. She continues to receive services and support for her own illness, and has gone from being a client to a Peer Specialist for Catholic Charities Maine Support & Recovery Services. Her work involves speaking in the community, developing services, and working with mental health clients to fully integrate them into the community. She sits on the Quality Improvement Council of AMHI, a place she had escaped from years before. Most recently, she has become involved with the Maine Cemetery Project, a way to honor the lives of those who died and were buried nameless at Maine’s mental institution.

"I am passionate about issues I have experienced – abuse, poverty, hunger, mental illness and homelessness. I know that if I work for change, others won’t have to live the life I did. Most importantly, I know the power of forgiveness. By forgiving, I have been able to become my brother’s keeper."