'Booze had her by the throat'

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

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on May 5, 2012

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."

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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."

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

bsweet@thetelegram.com

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