I didn’t know Gina Micali.
But I knew her.
Gina was 38 years old. She was a jet skier, wakeboarder, snowboarder. She was an athlete who got hooked on the pills after an injury and found herself unable to stop. It was that simple.
And now she was dead.
Standing before a judge, her doctor — our doctor — was defiant to the end. Dr. Harriston Bass — the first doctor in Nevada’s history to be convicted of murder after illegally supplying drugs to a patient who overdosed — was stoic in his defense, his legal team dismissing the dead Gina Micali as an addict who abused the system, who destroyed her own life with her own bad decisions.
I didn’t know Gina Micali. But I knew her.
It was the summer of the 2000s. Texting while driving was legal, thong underwear had its own theme song, and Rx drug abuse was just hitting its stride.
With the OxyContin tablet reformulation still years away, pills were paving the way for a 21st century American heroin epidemic that had yet to show its face. Tiny tablets found their way from pharmaceutical reps who knew better, to doctors who should have known better, onto the streets to addicts like me who didn’t really give a shit who knew what, so long as we got our drugs.
Everyone involved in the genesis of the epidemic, from the producer down to the user, believed that their version of responsibility’s burden was the true one, dismissive and defensive in a truly American-capitalist sense, blaming everything but a mirror.
“Truth.” That’s a very relative term when drugs are involved.
I started using after an injury from a car accident. Now I couldn’t stop. It was that simple.
A few years into my addiction, I was having a hard time obtaining the amount of pills and Fentanyl patches that my body was suddenly demanding of me. In the beginning I could use until I was out. I’d feel a little achy, a bit flu-ish, but be fine after a few days. The longer I used, however, the more difficult just stopping became. At some point my use went from a want to a need, and wherever the universe drew that arbitrary line — once I crossed, it was game over. Or game on. Whatever.
I began abusing drugs in angry, violent bursts, holding it together for a few weeks before going off the deep end, doing whatever I could get my hands on until there were no more. The drugs would run out and I’d spend the next few weeks drying out, cleaning up whatever disaster I caused during my last run, before doing the whole thing all over again, a fucked up vicious cycle of insanity and redundancy.
It was a twisted, malicious, sick love affair, saturated in passionate self-destruction, layered in self-loathing and coated in a refusal to take accountability for anything the slightest bit uncomfortable.
Enter into my life: Soon-to-be-convicted-of-second-degree-murder, Dr. Harriston Bass.
Dr. Bass was found by chance, dumb luck, fate, what-the-fuck-ever. I found him — that’s all that really matters.
On a weekend trip to Las Vegas I ran out of drugs — shocking— so I did what any addict would do to keep from coming down on a Sunday morning: I went to the phone book and called around. Only one doctor’s “office” answered the phone that day: Docs 24/7, a mobile-doctor who would come to me at my room at the New York, New York Hotel & Casino.
Dr. Harriston Bass emerged from a wrapped PT Cruiser carrying a black doctor’s bag, wearing a white coat. Short and stocky, Dr. Bass was built like a wrestler, in great shape for his age. He spoke in the cadence of a southern black preacher, which was exactly what he looked like. His voice was calm but forceful, gentle yet strong.
After examining me, he put his stethoscope and blood pressure thingy away, and looked at me.
“So how much would you like, Mr. Smith?” he asked, catching me off guard. I was used to a much more delicate dance of manipulation. There was typically a procession, like a swap-meet, me starting high with, say, OxyContin, the doctor starting low with, say, Ibuprofen, and the two of us eventually meeting in the middle at Norco or Percocet 10–325. Dr. Bass was breaking protocol, his bluntness throwing me off.
“…would I like?” I asked, eyebrows raised, trying to feel him out, seated on the edge of my hotel bed.
“Yes, Mr. Smith. That’s what I asked. How much would you like?”
“…umm… how… much… can… you… give… me?”
“Well,” he said, reaching into his little black bag, “I have eight bottles of Norco 10s, a hundred in each bottle, and I can write you a prescription for #360 of the Norco with two refills, but you have to fill them in Nevada, not California.” He paused. “I prefer my patients use the Saddleback Pharmacy here in Las Vegas. They don’t ask questions.”
My brain raced. Was this a setup? No, it couldn’t be. He offered the drugs to me. I didn’t ask for them. I’d been to jail enough times to know what entrapment was. Was I on some sort of drug addict hidden camera show? America’s Most Pathetic Home Video? It sounded too good to be true.
“…you can give me all of that?” I asked, my head falling forward, eyes opened wide in utter disbelief at the luck I was experiencing. I found this guy in a fucking phone book.
“Yes, Mr. Smith. That’ll be $600.”
Reaching into my wallet, I pulled out a Mastercard that had a ridiculously high limit for someone my age, the foundation of a financial crisis still a decade away.
“Cash, Mr. Smith,” he said, shaking his head. “I only take cash.”
“Can you follow me to the lobby, and I’ll just pull it out on a credit card advance?” I asked, hurrying, afraid that this insane luck I was experiencing had a time limit that was ticking its way back toward the hustle I’d been forced to endure before Dr. Bass entered my life, involving medical clinic after medical clinic after medical clinic, scoring drugs in small quantities. I felt like a narcotic-Cinderella, afraid this fucking doctor was going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight and lose his powers to prescribe.
“Mr. Smith,” he said calmly, “I’d prefer our transaction not take place on camera. I’ll wait here while you get the money.”
My shirt still off from my doctor’s exam, I ran to the elevators, pushing the button with anticipation and excitement. As if me pushing the button made the thing move any faster. In the meantime, normal people crowded into the elevator with the maniac with his shirt off who looked like he really wanted to get to the first floor.
I pulled out $600 that would years later be but one of many numbers on a court-ordered debt collection, ran back upstairs, where Dr. Bass was watching church on T.V., volume up loud. As I opened the door, I could hear a preacher with a Southern accent speak on the book of Psalms.
“ Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.”
Standing up, Dr. Bass looked at me and began speaking in acronyms, adding to the surrealism of the situation.
“Mr. Smith, never forget — TRUTH. T-R-U-T-H: Truth and Righteousness Under The Heavens.”
I looked on, trying to understand what exactly the fuck was going on here, nodding my head as if I followed, hoping he’d just hurry up and give me the drugs I was ruining my credit for.
“LIE, Mr. Smith,” he continued, “L-I-E: Living Inside of Evil. Never let lies creep into your life, Mr. Smith.”
With that, Dr. Bass took my wad of hundred dollar bills, handed me eight bottles of pills and a written prescription, and left my hotel room without saying another word.
I didn’t know Gina Micali. But I knew her.
Every few months I’d go to Vegas on a Friday, arrive on Saturday, meet Dr. Bass, who’d sell me bottles of pills and boxes of Fentanyl patches, along with written scripts for more of the same — filled in Nevada, per his instructions, at the Saddleback Pharmacy.
Six hundred dollars. Cash. Always cash.
Throughout the decade, I’d wake up many times surrounded by family and friends, just-past overdose, not-quite dead, with my family holding up bottles from Dr. Bass, looking me dead in the eyes, begging me, “Jason, who the fuck is this Dr. Bass and WHY IS HE PRESCRIBING YOU SO MANY PILLS?”
“I bought them on the street,” I’d lie. “I’ve never met him.”
Sometimes a lie just sounds better.
I never ratted him out. No way. He was my lifeline, my savior, the one I went to in a pinch, my salvation. I spent many days watching the clock and awaiting Dr. Bass’s arrival, anxious in anticipation, for the man with the drugs.
“Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.”
I once made the mistake of crossing Dr. Bass, a bad move in hindsight. Shit got real, real quick.
Dr. Bass never counted the cash after I gave it to him. He just stuck it into the bag he pulled the pills from, and walked out of my life until the next time I invited him in. Once, I shorted him a hundred bucks, thinking he wouldn’t notice. Total drug addict thinking. Maybe — just maybe — a drug dealer won’t notice a hundred dollars missing. About a half hour after he left my sketchy-ass motel room, my phone rang.
“Hello?” I answered, trying to hear him over the tweakers doing who-the-fuck-knows what in the next room. Long-gone were the days of the New York, New York Hotel & Casino. There seemed to be an inverse correlation between the amount of time I knew Dr. Bass and the quality of hotel room I could afford. I was shacked up in a place called the Gold Spike.
Seriously — that’s what it was called.
“Hello, Mr. Smith?” he said, in the same cool, calm, collected voice that he used with me in person.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said, trying to play it cool, as if I didn’t do shit wrong. “This is Jason.”
“Hello Mr. Smith,” he said, the preacher giving a sermon, falling into cadence. “I was calling to let you know that if you try and FUCK me, I will FUCK you,” he told me, accentuating both “fucks” in a tone reminiscent of a civil rights leader speaking to a crowd. “I will FUCK you so bad, that you won’t get out of the state of Nevada. You DO NOT want to FUCK with me, Mr. Smith. Do you understand me? Do you hear me, Mr. Smith? DO NOT TRY AND FUCK ME.”
I paused on the end of the line, trying to think of what to say. I couldn’t think of anything, so a feeble “Yes, sir” fell out of my mouth. I felt like a kid being scolded by his principal, but in a setting where the principal might bury the body somewhere in the Nevada desert.
“Good, I’m glad we understand each other,” he said, falling back into his cool, calm, collected voice. “I will be in your area at 3:15, and I’d like to collect what’s mine.”
“…Umm, yeah, I mean, yes, sir. I’m sorry, I uhh…, it was an accid-”
“Thank you,” he stated flatly and matter-of-factly, cutting me off. “LIE. L-I-E: Living In Evil. Be careful, Mr. Smith.”
Her name was Gina Micali, and she was 38 years old. She was a jet skier, wakeboarder, snowboarder. She was an athlete who got hooked on the pills after an injury and found herself unable to stop.
I didn’t know Gina Micali, but I knew her.
She was found by her family, dead of a drug overdose, surrounded by pills supplied by Dr. Bass, who could only wonder, I imagine, “Who is Dr. Bass and WHY IN THE FUCK DID HE GIVE HER SO MANY PILLS?” She was buying pills like I was buying pills, except she was dead and I was not.
I pictured her interactions with Dr. Bass, him speaking in acronyms, her pretending to follow along as if she knew what the fuck he was talking about. I envisioned her buying the pills in bulk, her getting that warm feeling in the pit of her stomach when Dr. Bass took the large bottles out of his little black bag. I imagined her scrounging up money any way she could, once every few months or so, to make the purchase she needed to make to stay well. I imagined her in a failing marriage due to her secret life, having a hard time explaining to her spouse why money kept going missing in $600 increments, confused, screaming “Jason, what the fuck are these pills hidden all over the house?”
And now she was dead.
I didn’t care about Gina Micali. Or her death. Or her family. Or her friends. That would have required an element of humanity that I’d long since sacrificed, sold to the first bidder without even so much as glancing at the price. No, what I cared about was MY program that had just gotten derailed. MY PROGRAM. Dr. Bass had an arrangement with ME, a system, that got ME what I needed when I needed it, that kept ME from getting sick.
For years I was able to get all the drugs I needed. Me, Me, motherfucking ME. And now that was all fucked up because this dead girl couldn’t do her drugs right.
I hated a dead girl for having the nerve to die on ME.
For putting MY doctor in prison.
I’m the center of the universe, goddamn it. The sun of reality revolves around ME. I don’t care about you. I can’t. It’s nothing personal, but I simply cannot give a fuck about your feelings or your life or your anything when I’m using. It ain’t about you. This is about ME. I’ve detached myself completely from you and the rest of humanity.
Otherwise, how am I going rob you, pawn your shit, then help you look for it with a clean conscience while high on the drugs I bought with your Mac Book Pro? How else am I going to swear to God that I’m not high, despite nodding out at the dinner table, with a straight face? How else am I going to break promise after promise, let you down time after time, and force you to watch me die slowly, but still have the nerve to hit you up for $20 bucks at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning?
Drug addiction at some point requires an incorporation of the soul. Your addiction must at some point become its own entity, leaving you with limited liability for the dirty, conniving, manipulative shit done to maintain it. Addiction becomes its own life-force, granted it’s own personhood — Citizens United, baby — who does things the real you would never do. But you allow this to happen because the dividends you receive feel that fucking good.
No, I didn’t know Gina Micali, and I didn’t want to. I hated her because I was her.
“Truth.” That’s a very relative word when drugs are involved.
When you live in half-truths, sorta-truths, almost-but-not-quite truths, and flat out bullshit, truth is easily bent, fitting whatever conniving scheme we’re concocting.
Sometimes truth can be built up for no other reason than the fact there’s a sick, fucked up part of us that likes tearing it down.
Dr. Bass stood stoic and proud in court on the morning of his sentencing, proclaiming:
“Truth — the spirit of truth — will not shut up. It will not let up nor will it give up.”
Perhaps there were threads of truth woven into my entire experience with Dr. Bass. Perhaps the lies he so vehemently implored me to avoid with his acronym sermons — maybe he knew the road I was traveling, because that’s the road he traveled, for a very different addiction.
Maybe Dr. Bass didn’t know me. But he knew me.
Gina Micali never made it out, never got that chance that for reasons that only God or the universe or nature or who-the-fuck-ever knows. Often times, I ask myself why I’m still here. Why me. Why did I survive the onslaught of America’s current opiate epidemic, making it out — barely, but alive — somehow with my liver still functional, my body not broken, not quite healed but at least the blood has clotted.
Truth is, I have no idea. I don’t get to know those things, and I’m ok with that. I have to be; that’s my only way of coping. Truth is, I escaped with my life, while Gina and Dr. Bass did not. Truth is, I’m sitting here writing while they’re sitting there rotting away, one with a pulse, one without. Truth is — I’m not even sure what that means. “Truth.” I’ve learned there’s no rhyme or reason to this shit. At least none that I can find that explains why I’m here and they’re not.
“Truth.” That’s a very relative term when drugs are involved.