Teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, rape, losing the family farm, divorce — any one of these traumatic life events might be considered as a trigger for mental health issues like depression and anxiety. But Frazee resident Karen Pifher has experienced them all at different points in her life, and credits her family, faith and local mental health resources with helping her find the path to recovery.
"I never imagined I’d be where I’m at now," she says. "That I’d be alive and well and in recovery once seemed so far out of reach."
It wasn't that she was the textbook definition of "troubled youth," she added — in fact, Karen's childhood in Roseau, Minn., was what many might consider to be idyllic.
"I was a really good student, I had great parents, we went to church every Sunday," she said. "I had a really normal childhood."
And then, when she turned 15, Karen met a boy and fell in love for the first time. Unfortunately, that first love proved to be more traumatic than romantic.
"I got into a very unhealthy relationship that was emotionally, mentally and sexually abusive," she said. "I ended up pregnant at 16. That really changed a lot of things in my life.
"My (high school) vice principal told me, there's no shame in dropping out of school," Karen recalled. "But I didn't want that. I wanted to be a veterinarian."
So she made the decision to stay in school, and earned her high school diploma. Meanwhile, the relationship with the father of her son Lars continued, even as she enrolled at Winona State University and started balancing college life with a full-time, minimum-wage job and motherhood.
"I stayed with him for five years, even while I went to college," Karen said.
After a year of juggling work, school and home life, Karen decided to leave school and move in with her son's father in Iowa.
"Our relationship went from bad to worse; it became very abusive," she said.
Then one day, a friend came to her and said it was time for her to take her son and get out. So Karen did just that, setting off in the middle of the night for her parents' home back in Roseau — a 10-hour drive.
"If it wasn’t for my parents, I would have had nowhere to live," she said. "I would have been homeless. I had nothing with me."
She would spend the next six months struggling to get back on her feet, financially, mentally and emotionally.
"I knew that I wanted to do more with my life, but I didn't know where or what that looked like exactly," she said. "I really wanted to go back to college someday."
After taking a look at her options, Karen settled on moving to a new home in the Frazee area.
"There were lakes everywhere, affordable housing, and a college in Detroit Lakes," she said.
Not long after she moved to the community in 2002, Karen met the man who would become her husband. At the time, she was working as a certified nursing assistant — a profession that she had begun while living in Iowa.
Her new husband, who owned a hardwood flooring business, had a dream to start up a farm of his own — a dream that Karen would come to share.
"We built our own dairy farm," she said, even as they both maintained their full-time jobs and welcomed two more children together — daughter Taylor and son Brady.
"We created a wonderful home life for ourselves and the kids," she said. "We won awards for the quality of our milk."
Unfortunately, the dream gradually began to turn sour, as they struggled constantly to make ends meet financially — even with two paychecks in addition to the dairy farm's income.
And then, disaster struck, in the form of a disease that spread quickly through their farm's dairy herd.
"We had to sell about 30 cows at half the price we bought them for, our crop didn't do well and the (market) price of milk dropped in half," Karen said, noting that the milk checks that were coming in didn't even cover the cost of feed for the cows.
"Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," she said — and on top of that, she was battling depression, and both she and her husband were drinking a lot. "We were tired of being poor, of always being broke and never getting anywhere."
So she enrolled at North Dakota State University, seeking a master's degree in community development while continuing her social work career at Essentia Health. A year later, she became the manager of community health and social services at Essential Health St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes — a position that fulfilled her career aspirations perfectly.
But even as her career began moving in the right direction, Karen found out from her oldest son that his birth father had been abusing him.
"That created a whole other level of trauma," she said, "so I had to figure out how to support him."
Many trips back and forth to Iowa ensued, as her son was forced to testify against his father in court.
"It dragged out for over a year," she said. "We were going to Iowa to testify all the time, and my son was not OK. . . . In the meantime, my marriage completely fell apart. It was just terrible — a terrible, terrible time."
Eventually, both the dairy farm operation and the marriage ended. They sold the farmland and Karen moved back into town with the children.
"So I was trying to be a single mom, raise three kids and support my son," she said.
In the midst of all this upheaval, Karen said, she suffered a back injury that would require surgery and take her away from work for three months. The Frazee community came together and organized a benefit to help her family with their financial struggles.
But then, just as Karen was beginning to get back on her feet, both literally and financially, she became a victim of rape.
"I was out with friends, in what I thought was a safe space," she said. "I ended up getting drugged and raped. I can’t tell you the amount of damage that did on top of what was already happening in my life."
"What people said, it was incredibly hurtful and damaging to me — and the judgment, it was awful. There's no better way of putting it. I was extremely depressed, and I didn't know how to talk about it. I didn't know what to say. I was really numb."
One night, as she was driving down the road, the thought occurred, "If I was dead, would anyone notice?"
Though she was "almost suicidal," Karen said, the thought of her children kept her from truly attempting to end her life.
"I knew I needed help," she said. "So I got on medication (for depression) and started seeing a therapist, for the second time in my life, to try and work through it."
Her job, however, remained a bright spot in her life. "I loved my job," Karen said. "It gave me so much pride and meaning, at a time that my life was such a mess."
Her personal life also had moments of joy as well: A couple of years ago, Karen met the man who would become her second husband, Daniel Pifher.
"He’s wonderful," she said. "I have been so incredibly blessed."
Karen also rediscovered her faith, and began going to a church "that felt like home to me. My faith in God has carried me through . . . facing God helped get me through that really dark time especially."
A little less than a year ago, Karen said, she made the decision to stop drinking.
"I got to a point where I decided I don't want this (alcohol) in my life anymore," she said. "I don't like to be hung over. I want to be a better person, I want to be stable — not just financially, but emotionally. I don't want to have to numb my feelings anymore.
"I just chose on my own — decided that it was time to quit," she said. ""Addiction runs really strong on both sides of my family, so I knew it was going to be a journey. I enrolled in a treatment program through Drake (Counseling Services), because I knew I was going to need support, at least at first, and I'm really, really glad I did. I was able to analyze and understand why I was drinking, and how it was impacting my life.
"That was the start of my recovery journey. It's been almost a year now. In so many ways I am so grateful — I feel like my life is incredibly blessed. All the time God keeps providing these blessings and second chances."
One of the things treatment has taught her, Karen says, is that it's OK to make mistakes. "You can make mistakes — it doesn't mean it's going to haunt you the rest of your life. I've been going through this process of trying to forgive myself, and to be a better person, a better mom, a better employee."
Having access to mental health services like those provided at Drake was essential to that process, she added.
"I have a wonderfully supportive family as well," she added. "My husband has been fantastic, and I've seen a change in my children — they're doing well. There's always ways we can grow and change — it's a journey. But I've definitely learned a lot about myself, and about people. I understand how difficult it is."
Karen said she really struggled with the idea of coming forward and speaking about everything she's been through, but "I also recognize how important it is to talk about it. Everybody has a story, has a journey, and there are a lot of professionals who struggle. If I can't speak about it, how can I tell other people to? To talk about these things is hard, and it's personal, but it's part of my healing journey, and I hope it inspires other people as well."
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is dealing with addiction, or thoughts of suicide, here are a few resources for getting you/them on the road to recovery.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) for TTY; or 1-888-628-9454 (for Spanish speakers)
Becker County and White Earth Reservation 24-Hour Mental Health Crisis Line: 218-850-4357
Minnesota Crisis Text Line: Text MN to #741741
Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (or text #838255)
Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Behavioral Health: 218-844-2347
Sanford Clinic Behavioral Health: 1-218-846-2000
Lakeland Mental Health Center: 218-847-1676
Stellher Counseling Services: 218-444-2845
The Village: 1-800-627-8220
White Earth Mental Health: 218-983-6325 or 218-983-4703
Willow Tree, mental health crisis stabilization services for adults: 218-844-1733
A Place to Belong, recreational and social events, peer support, meals, computer access, free laundry facilities and community service opportunities for adults with diagnosed mental illnesses: 218-739-0797
Lakes Crisis and Resource Center, mental health services for victims of domestic violence: 218-847-8572, or 218-847-7446 for the 24-hour Crisis Hotline
Bridgeway Behavioral Health Services, Fergus Falls: 218-736-8208
Prairie St. John’s, Fargo, N.D.: 701-476-7216
Red River Behavioral Health System, Grand Forks, N.D.: 701-772-2500
Northwestern Mental Health Center, Crookston: 1-800-282-5005
Get into ‘Inside Out’
The 10-part “Inside Out” series launched Nov. 30 and continues through January. Watch the videos on local station TV3, online on the lakestv3 YouTube channel, or at beckercountyenergize.com. Videos launch every Monday. Read the feature stories in the Tribune, in the Wednesday print editions every week of the series as well as online every Wednesday at dl-online.com.
The series schedule is as follows:
- Generalized Anxiety During the Pandemic/Current World Stressors
TV3 video: Monday, Nov. 30 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 2
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 7 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 9
- Farmer Depression and Suicide
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 14 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 16
- Bipolar Disorder
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 21 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 23
- Addiction/Recovery and Mental Illness
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 28 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 30
- Borderline Personality Disorder
TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 4 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 6
- Mental Illness and the Judicial System
TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 11 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 13
- Mental Illness as it Relates to Domestic Violence
TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 18 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 20
- Mental Illness in the Elderly and Final Panel Wrap-up
TV3 videos: Monday, Jan. 25 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 27