'Booze had her by the throat'

Barb Sweet
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Chrissy Pearce died after checking out of detox. Her loved ones say the system failed her many times

Chrissy Pearce was stunningly beautiful. Tall, blond hair, blue eyes, a magnetic smile.

The kind of woman a stranger might glance at and think she was lucky at life.

But it was tragically not so.

On a recent Friday night, Pearce, just 33, checked herself out of the detox facility in Pleasantville, St. John's, that she had been trying to get into all that week.

By the time she got a bed, she was apparently too addled by bingeing on alcohol, followed by prescription meds.

The next day, April 21, Pearce was dead.

The wreckage left two teenage daughters motherless, a boyfriend consumed with grief, disappointment in the heath-care system and parents left to cope, not only with the death of their daughter, but the spiralling behaviour of their drug-addicted son, who was on the scene when she died.

And there are questions about the hours leading up to her death, about how staff let Pearce walk away from detox; why the week before she died she was sent home from the Waterford with no followup required and with more prescriptions for pills that don't mix with alcohol; and why she wasn't able to obtain long-term, intensive treatment.

Her boyfriend, Dean Cantwell, saved some recordings of Pearce's voice that he hoped would aid his attempts to get her help once and for all.

They are anguished, slurred cries, all the more achingly poignant now.

"I need help," she said in one.

"I want to go to detox," she screeches in another.

"I wants to be able to talk. Oh my God."

"Listen to her crying like that, 'I want to talk to somebody. I need help,'" Cantwell said. "That's the cry. That was the pit of her heart and soul."


Cantwell, a muscular, retired military firefighter, went into action mode trying to find Pearce help, but - as he describes it - there were no rules of engagement.

He can't count the number of times an ambulance was called, and the number of hospital visits. She got into short-term programs and Humberwood, a treatment facility on the west coast. But when she got out of those, there was no long-term counselling.

"I was handcuffed in my own house," he said, his voice breaking as he gave in to the emotion.

"In the military ... they come in and take you to hospital, the best of the best, you got it. Doctors come in, whatever you need. You're a life. You are worth something. She was worth nothing (to the system).

"I could feel bad for myself and sit on the couch and let it happen to the next person - what does it matter to me? But I've got to be her voice."

The tragedy of Chrissy Pearce and those who loved her unfolds one layer after another.

Cantwell loved her, and would have married her in a second. He knew the ring she wanted, where the wedding would take place.

"Alcoholics get married, don't they?" he said.

"Yes, it was a struggle. There was nothing easy about it. ... But I would have stood by her.

Almost four years ago, his aunt suggested Cantwell come down to her hairdressing shop to meet an employee he might be interested in.

"It was like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

"People that met her for the first time feel like they've known her for years. She had a laugh about her that was intoxicating."


When she moved to Gander with her kids to be with Cantwell as he finished his military career, Pearce would drink a large and a small bottle of wine a day that summer, he said.

She had carpal tunnel syndrome and couldn't work as a hairdresser when she wasn't getting fired because of her drinking, he explained.

After her marriage broke up, Pearce had tried to make ends meet on social assistance, was stressed out and suffered from anxiety.

When she got together with Cantwell, who moved on to a second career, there was money in their Mount Pearl home for all the necessities and comforts, and she had the means to drink.

They were happy together, Cantwell said. But by the time he came along, the alcohol already had a grip on her.

Initially, Pearce, who suffered from depression, hid her troubles from Cantwell behind her infectious smile. When he learned what was going on, he said he believed in the goodness of her.

Child protective services had gotten involved in Pearce's case, Cantwell said. But he said the followup was shoddy, and they failed to enforce required urine samples.

"To be quite honest with you, from the time I was with her until today, (we) had 10 to 20 social workers," Cantwell said.

"They changed like you would change your underwear ... over and over and over. ... At one point I would call social services ... I called 53 times and left 32 messages. I ended up going in there.

"Her drinking had gotten off the rails again and I was concerned and I wanted them to help us and give us some kind of direction before it went to the wayside. Nothing.

"Shit hit the fan. They were the first ones to come in and put a safety order on the kids and walked out and never heard a thing from them again."


In 2010, Pearce's stepson from her marriage was murdered in Paradise.

She and Cantwell broke up for five months. He said she received no crisis counselling.

"It was a wonder she lived through it. She was a mess when she came back to me, a mess," he said.

When she went to Humberwood she was pregnant, but lost the baby.

Before Christmas, Pearce was so stressed that Cantwell appealed to NDP St. John's South-Mount Pearl MP Ryan Cleary. His office helped her get into the Short Term Assessment and Referral Treatment (START) clinic for mental health and addictions programs at St. Clare's Hospital.

But Cantwell said, again, the problem was a lack of followup, and often medical and social services officials judged her rather than offering empathy.

He said the threat of losing her children kept her from admitting to Waterford Hospital staff that she was a harm to herself.

But Bill Pearce, her father, said she'd wind up at the Waterford overdosed and the professionals should have picked up on it.

"The big message here is Dean has been to heck and back with the system, trying to get help for Chrissy," Bill Pearce said.

"She should have been kept there under the Mental Health Act," Cantwell said.

"Meanwhile they refill her prescription and out the door she goes," Bill Pearce added.

"She's got any credibility at that point she's not going to hurt herself? When she says 'I'm not going to hurt myself,' these educated people sign off, get her out the door. 'Next.'

"They already got too many patients, and that's what happens and it comes down to there's not enough support. Do we make mistakes as people? Yes we do, but when we reach out there's not enough help."

Pearce was sent home with prescriptions for the anti-anxiety medications clonazepam and a sedative, trazodone, despite the fact she was at risk of abusing them with alcohol.

"Clonazepam was what she took in abundance to get her in there in the first place when she was drinking," Cantwell said.


The last week of her life, Pearce made the decision to go to detox. She had a new job lined up.

"We were here on this couch and she cried and she drank, trying to get in there," he said.

"When they think they're going to get in detox, they want to go in there drunk so they can kinda just be numb. She thought she was getting in there Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. They kept saying, 'Call back at 11 p.m. tonight, there might be a spot.'"

Meanwhile, Cantwell said a male friend who had slipped after a year of being sober got a bed at the detox centre, as there are more beds for men.

After Pearce finally got in on a Friday, Cantwell, who was working an overnight shift, called to check on her.

She apparently checked herself out around 10:45 p.m.

Bill Pearce and his wife, Elizabeth, were on holiday in the Dominican Republic.

Pearce apparently called her grandfather, who lived in her parents' basement apartment, met up with her brother and his spouse at the house and died in the makeshift loft in the backyard shed, Cantwell said.

Bill Pearce said the family is waiting on toxicology reports, but there were two needle marks on her body.

Cantwell is adamant she wouldn't have shot herself up and said so to him in a last phone call.

He said her teenage daughter went to find her. Somewhere around 8:30 a.m., Pearce was pronounced dead at the scene.

It was three days before her parents were able to get back home.


The troubles defy the Pearces' image as a typical St. John's family - middle-class parents who say they brought their children up with love.

And in the throes of grief over their daughter's death, they are desperately trying to get their son back on methadone.

"Yeah she passed because she chose to drink, but I really don't understand why the programs aren't there, and when the signs are there and people are asking for help, they can't get it," Bill Pearce said.

"Right now, I got a son who is following close behind her."

Whenever Pearce would fall off the rails, she'd think of herself as a failure, Cantwell said.

"I said, 'No that's not it. You are a winner, because you mentioned it to me and we are going to do this,'" he said.

"Booze had her by the throat."

They'd begun working on a plan that put structure in her life, taking care of her daughters, building routine and stability.

Based on her history of detox and rehab, Cantwell said there should have been a number they could call when crisis set in, and not have to start all over again with the system.

Pearce loved George Jones and would sing one particular song a few nights a week: "Choices" recalls the country singer's struggles with drinking.

"I have had choices since the day that I was born. There were voices that told me right from wrong. If I had listened, no I wouldn't be here today, living and dying with the choices I have made," Jones sings.


Dean Cantwell can't change the choices made in Pearce's life and death.

But the Chrissy Pearce he wants remembered is the woman who would give anything to anyone. Christmastime, she'd ask to buy gifts and food for friends scraping by on low incomes or social assistance. Other times she'd give away household goods to those who needed them.

"That's the way she was - always caring," he said.

"If you just met her, you would be attached to her.

"(The drinking) didn't make her the person we see smiling and giving and so tender ... It wasn't her."

In a video taken on a good day, he is heard teasing her off-camera.

"Imagine getting up on your wedding day and doing that?" he asked, as she tries to wash off a spray-tanning experiment gone bad.

"How does it go so quick?" Cantwell wondered in disbelief after viewing the clip.

"She wanted to make a concrete effort to try to make things work between us.

"I told her, I said, 'I see the good in you. You are promising. You can make a difference. I am not going to throw you to the curb. Maybe people done that in your life in the past.' I said, 'I am solid. Anytime you ever need anything, to be around someone, I will always be there.' I promised her.

"I wasn't there that night. The system wasn't there for her, neither."


Organizations: Waterford Hospital, Dominican Republic

Geographic location: St. John's, Pleasantville, Mount Pearl Gander Paradise Clare Pearces

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Recent comments

  • kyla
    March 04, 2013 - 19:52

    I did not know Christine, but I do know Dean. I remember the day he told me about Christine's death. I am out of province but have known Dean for a few years now. He was very supportive and sympathetic to Christine's plight. The system did fail her, there is not a doubt in my mind. If we all had the compassion and big heart that Dean has, the world would be a better place. Step up to the plate Nfld. Keep the pressure on your provincial government to implement changes. This death was preventable had their been proper intervention. Just because someone suffers from addiction does not mean they are disposable.

  • Tara
    July 27, 2012 - 13:13

    I shared a room at the detox center with Chrissy, she suffered from the disease of addiction and i know she fought for her life, she wanted to do what was best for her and her family, I had many conversations with Chrissy and at first it was a choice to pick up that first drink, But for some one is to many and a thousand is never enough. I am living a clean life right now but i will always be an addict no matter how much clean time I have, and I.m speaking from experience the system is failing addicts over and over again. I have many story's that i could tell about how i was treated at hospitals and how hard it is once u leave a rehab or detox and have to go right back to the people place's and things that slowly but surely sucks u back in. Every addict needs a program just as every diabetic needs their insulin. ADDICTION IS A DISEASE !

    • Dean
      May 01, 2013 - 19:53

      Good for you Tara and I am whole heartedly thankful that you had the chance to meet Chrissy. I am so happy that you are on the right track now, you deserve the best! Dean

    May 09, 2012 - 17:42


  • M Power
    May 06, 2012 - 19:22

    So sorry for your loss of a beautiful person. I too lost my brother last year 36 hours after he was sent home from the Waterford Hospital Crisis Unit with Trazodone as a sleep aid and a card to see his gp in 1-2 weeks. He did not have drinking or drug problems but had a history of depression and bipolar 14 years previous. He held a job and friends but did not feel well and told the GP he saw his history and he "felt hopeless, helpless...could not go on like this and could not live like this anymore". He did not state he was suicidal. They did not talk to my Mom and most importantly, they did not retrieve his medical file which was offsite, as the GP "did not want to inconvienence him". They did not realize he was bipolar and possibly in a mixed state, and Trazodone is actually a anti-depressant, and extreme caution should be used in bipolar as it can cause a bipolar switch or rapid cycling...going from depressed to manic. He went to work for two days and on his lunchbreak drove to his cabin and committed suicide. My family is devastated as I'm sure Ms Pearces family is as well. Eastern Health and the Mental Health and Addictions services completly are failing people and their families no matter if it is a addiction problem or mental health issue. As Ms Pearce also battled depression, I wonder how much the drug Trazodone may also have effected her illness and alcoholism. Please Mr. Cantwell, don't drop this as my family have also pressured Eastern Health and continue to do so. Hopefully we can make them see they have to improve their system as it is not working and costing us our loved ones lives.

  • Nessie
    May 06, 2012 - 09:41

    After reading what I have read here on this site I want to say to you Dean that you and your family are an amazing bunch of family supporters. It is the type of support that you are giving each other today in telling Chrissy's story posthumously, after you did everything while she was alive to obtain the services that were required to make her well. You have now taken upon Chrissy's cause posthumously on how difficult it was for her and for others to get the type of Medical assistance one needs to overcome addictions. If the government is listening your family's guidance should be followed by them so that they can implement the types of counselling and medical care that is badly needed to treat people like Chrissy.

  • craig
    May 05, 2012 - 23:24

    This really is UNREAL. how many more deaths, tragedies, scandals, inquiries etc do we need at eastern healthless before someone wakes up and gets rid of all their vice presidents, managers, ceo...the whole works. this is JUST NOT GOOD ENUF. i'd say wipe out all the health authorities: will save us billions long term in NL and people will then get the help they need WHEN they need it instead of having doors closed in their faces when they are sick because not enuf staff when they are TOO TOP HEAVY. we all know someone who has had a negative experience in dealing with this "great" mental health system these so called professionals have created. thoughts and prayers are with mr cantwell at this time; it really is sad when you cry out for help and cannot get it. addicts admittign they need help is over 50% of their battle (admitting-yes taking responsibility-that they need help and want to be helped). i really hope mr cantwell contionues on her voice for the thousands of others who have or are in the same situation. enough is enough NL...we NEED CHANGES...NOW!

  • Donna
    May 05, 2012 - 22:07

    Dean, Chrissy would be so pround that you are getting her story out!!! They say "proud to be a newfoundlander" but thats so hard when you know the system is failing so many people. Hopefully once her story gets out something will change, its just so sad that she had to be the one to die for this to happen. I still can't get over the fact that she is gone but she will forever have a place in my heart. I have so many memories of her but the one that stands out the most is she always had that smile, the smile that would just light up a room when she walked in and thats the memory I will hold of Chrissy forever, I am so lucky to be able to call her my friend!!! RIP beauty I love you xoxo

  • lana cantwell steeples
    May 05, 2012 - 19:40

    I would like to first say how incredibly proud I am of my brother Dean for his never failing support of chrissy in the years they were together. he was there day and night. unfortunately this failing system has caused the spouse and family members of addict to be the only voice in their fight.so not only do they fail the patient but everyone who are fighting for them to live a healthy life. unfortunately two amazing girls have lost their mom in this tragedy ! She should have never have died. Chrissy and dean were literally begging health care professionals for help!! What more can a person do. If she were treated with humanity and respect just like any other patient walking through the door she would have received the life saving treatment she needed, the same as a cancer patient or anyone else with any other type of deases . it is a sad commentary on how they view people with addiction , somehow less than any other sick person. my heart is broken for my brother , her daughters and family and friends who have to live a life without her. lets help them fight for her now and bring change, so no one else has to feel the deep tragic loss of a beautiful young life . thank you for submitting lana cantwell steeples

  • Shawna Roach
    May 05, 2012 - 18:57

    Good for you Dean, being my cousins voice.Stay strong.And for all you out there who are under educated or havn't ever struggled with any of these issues, it's probly best not to judge.I will miss you dearly my cousin.

  • Brenda Cantwell
    May 05, 2012 - 18:06

    Good for you Dean!!! Alcoholism and Drug Addiction are diseases the same as Cancer and Diabetes. For people like David ignorance is bliss, and it is quite obvious they have not had to cope as a loved one struggled with such a destructive disease. Unfortunately it is too late for Christine, however by you standing up and speaking on her behalf, "being her VOICE", hopefully it will get through to the right people! If it helps just one person or one family at least her death will have some meaning!!! Stay Strong Dean, Stand up and be heard, We are behind you all the way!!!

  • Genevieve
    May 05, 2012 - 17:39

    As a mother to an addictive child, I know of the lack of help there is out there for addicts once they reach the age of maturity, I've had so many doors close in my face I could scream, we're talking detox, Waterford hospital, family doctor and my child's own psychiatrist that's just in a less than 24 hour period. The bottom line of it is this and that is we can't help those who don't want to help themselves, they say the help is there, but is it? Detox is a 5 day stay, then you have to try and keep the addict sober for the 10 hour drive to CornerBrook, the center won't take a patient who is high....what the capital city is lacking is a facility that has everything the addict needs under 1 roof, detox, coucelling, whatever else they need to rebuild their lives, an addict can't be expected to rebuild their lives in 20 days, the program, and lack of education in humberhood is not long enough, I can count up to 10 people who had ended their lives after humberhood, and that wasn't through media. How long more, and how many more lives have to be lost before the nl government steps in and realizes there's a huge problem in this city with drugs and alcohol addiction. I was told once through a councillor that if we as parents stopped being embarrassed by our loved ones addiction and speak up, we can only hope that one day the help will be here, and that things will change'but until then it's a fight and it's going to continue to be a fight. I pray every time my child walks through the door that I don't get a call from the morgue , and that is the harsh reality of addiction

  • Terry
    May 05, 2012 - 14:41

    David, obviously you don't understand the meaning of addiction of any kind. I really feel for this family and friends. She did need more help than that.

  • Tree Walsh
    May 05, 2012 - 14:06

    What a sad situation. Addiction has no rhyme or reason and the pain is miserable. When we are READY for help there MUST be somewhere to turn to immediately within our Health Care System. Addictions and Mental Health services, while improving, are NOT keeping up with the need. Boom times don't trickle down as much as they trickle ON those of us in need of the much STIGMATIZED Mental Health and Addictions services.. May Crissy rest in peace....god help the rest of us!

  • kim stapleton
    May 05, 2012 - 12:56

    christine was an amazing women , mother, daughter , friend and life partner if the system was there like they say it is she would not be were she is today she was loved by all that she came in contact with weither it was for a split second or for years.I have known her for years and she made a huge impact in my life we talked everyday if we were not out somewhere together she made me see the better person in side me . we were there for each other any time of the day or night . she was my best friend my sister i miss her so much and wish the system was there for her like they were suppose to be.

  • Jessica
    May 05, 2012 - 12:22

    Seriously, the ignorant people who would write such a thing are people who have never had an addiction themselves and never had a loved one who went through an addiction! Have some compassion for someone and know that there is a long road toward addiction recovery! There is work needed to be done to improve the detox program that we have here and there is also time and compassion that needs to be given to the people who are struggling with addiction! Think before you talk about something that you don't know everything about. It's those stereotypical attitudes that make it difficult for those who are trying to come to terms and recover from their issues!!!

  • Christa Coffen
    May 05, 2012 - 11:21

    David. If you can't be supportive, keep your comments to yourself. Honestly. You obviously do not know anyone who suffers from the DISEASE of ADDICTION. Go away. Google addiction and alcoholism, pal. Before spewing anonymous, cowardly comments. Education starts NOW for you.

  • Christa Coffen
    May 05, 2012 - 10:58

    LONG post ahead; and probably lacking grammar as I just woke up. So pardon any mistakes ;) And I must say, this article really packs a punch. I found out a lot from this that makes this tragic loss of one of my closest ever friends (since grade one) so much more tragic and sad. --THANK YOU Dean!! for helping to raise awareness of what is lacking in this Province of ours. -- I am one of MANY of Chrissy's closest friends and I have a load to say! I am taking Chrissy's death VERY hard because I know she didn't want to die, she didn't want to be sick, she WANTED and NEEDED help;.and even with the amazing personal support system Chrissy had; said support just wasn't enough when (she) was sick with addiction. And the freakin' heath system failed her big time. It is absolutely disgusting how easy it is to get hooked on drugs here in NL. Why? (2 main reasons. In my opinion) 1) Ignorant; lazy doctors who won't do their job and just fork over the those fancy green narcotic prescription slips just to get the patient out of their office so they can get more patient$ ($ ;) 2) You can DOUBLE, triple even quadruple doctor if you really wanted to. In order to get their supply for selling and to abuse, a lot of people do this. TOO many. In Ontario it's 100% impossible to have a second doctor. Why is it so easy here in NL? Are we THAT behind? or just ignorant? Makes me sick. I lived in Ontario for 14 years, ONTARIO! and I never seen so many drug addicts (and/or recovering addicts) as I do now in Newfoundland now that I am back "home." I am almost embarrassed to BE back home actually. I'm not embarrassed of the people, I am embarrassed of the Province who fail people day after day. It has gone to hell in a hand basket because of booze and drugs (mostly) now. And to all the people out there who judge and poke fun at that "crack head" or "booze hound" you know , remember Chrissy, and think! MOST of these so called "dirty addicts" DO NOT want to be sick, and do what they do. Just like Chrissy, they feel/felt they have no where to go to get off those drugs or the bottle...so they just continue to deal with living in addiction so they can just deal with life without pain because help will never come. And that is pretty darn scary, sad and makes me infuriated with NL. SMARTEN UP NL..or I'm out of here; again. You took one of my dearest friends..I have nothing much left to stay here in NL for anyhow. Peace! LOVE YOU Chrissy. I am so sorry no one (professional) listened my babe. XO

  • Brenda
    May 05, 2012 - 10:42

    I agree David Far too often in our society people don't want to take responsibility and blame "the system" for their own failures.

  • jim
    May 05, 2012 - 10:27

    David if only it were that simple. I hope you never get caught in the web that is alcoholism. Same can be said for cigarette smoking and obesity. The issue here is how best we can help those of us in need - not judge them.

  • Tina
    May 05, 2012 - 10:06

    so sorry about your heart break. I know actually how you feel. I had a brother who was the most beautiful person inside and out. Who also lost his life due to alcohol. That was over 20 years ago. And still nothing in our system has changed. Shame! But please remember Chrissy will always be in her heart and mind. And no matter what her choices were, she still was a wonderful person. Alcohol took her, but it can't take that sweet, caring soul that she had. Please make sure for yourself, that you get some help. Just for comfort and understanding. I pray that your family gets through this, and don't let this terrible thing distroy your relationship or drift apart. You will all need each other for many years to come.. God Bless!

  • So Sad
    May 05, 2012 - 09:59

    Mr. Cantwell - thank you for having the strength and courage to tell Chrissy's story. There are many people out there like Chrissy living with mental health issues, addictions or both. And they are not being properly cared for by the Health Care system. They are not. Politicians and Officials will try to tell you otherwise but they are not. Ask people in the trenches who are doing the work. There are some who will tell the truth about what's not working. How people are not being supported. I am truly sorry for your loss.

  • David
    May 05, 2012 - 09:06

    One's own hand is how one administers booze, it doesn't sneal up on you and attack. But, like everything else now, it's a great metaphorical story to deflect any personal responsiblity

    • Carol Ann Rogers
      May 05, 2012 - 10:46

      David- you know nothing of what you speak. Circumstances of this womans addiction and the suffering of her family particularly her children is a tragedy; the story itself told of the judgment by Social Workers and lack of empathy was part of the problem; Now you are also judging. This reaction by you a total stranger makes you sir, also part of the problem and not part of a solution. David- to make the article clear for you as you seem to be blaiming the sick person with a disease; its point for being published, was to present the facts on how the SYSTEM failed a sick woman asking repeatedly for help. I hope you never need empathy and caring for a serious problem in your life, Karma may be equally as kind to you as you have been to this sick woman.

    • Bill
      May 05, 2012 - 12:39

      David, Its not about blaming others .its about asking for help and not getting it.Chrissy would openly admit she had an addiction but she also was seeking help to cope with it.To say she was deflecting responsibility from herself to others is not true.Try reading the story again and this time try to comprehend its message.

    • Casey
      May 05, 2012 - 13:05

      What a cold and callous comment to leave on this site about another struggling human being. We don't know ourselves, yet we judge others without much consideration.

    • Dede
      May 05, 2012 - 15:28

      Alcohol is a drug. A socially accepted, legal drug. Drugs can have addictive qualities. People fall in to addictions and i don't think it is entirely their fault. And bad things happen to very good people. The former comment sounds like blame is being laid upon this woman who succumbed to a horrible addiction. These statements are in defense of those who like her, struggle with this socially accepted drug.

    • Tiggs
      May 05, 2012 - 15:56

      Wow... thanks for sharing such a touching story. I'm sorry David that you are an angry and judgmental person and guess what… you’re opinion means that their needs to be more education about addiction. We do not choose to be an addict; we do not choose the self defeating stories that play out in our heads that lead us to numb the pain.

    • Dean
      May 01, 2013 - 21:16

      Davids a joke and dont deserve the time for replies everyone. He is obviously fighting his own demons by trying to get a rise out of people on here. He is the type of snotty nosed kid that was picked on in the playground that grew up angry at the world and now has a vendeta/agenda to get a rise out of people. He is the type of guy who doesnt put his name up here and hides behind his computer as his 75 year old mom yells down over the basement stairs that his supper is ready lol. He is a joke and obviously someone who is yelling out for help and attention ! Good luck David : - )