I’ve never shared this story with anyone before.
“This story is about why I became a pharmacist. It started at a very young age. I was seven years old. I lived in Stockton, California, which was an agricultural community. There were canal systems and waterways there. They grew walnuts, almonds, all kinds of cherries and just a lot of produce. And there was a certain canal that was about a quarter mile from my house. As a young kid, it was a great place to play. We used to build go-karts and slide down the canal, because it was a big canal, even cars would drive on it. I and my brothers would play in a certain section in one direction because we were familiar with it. I had gone on it myself maybe four miles. That’s as far as I would go because it was unfamiliar. And my brothers were afraid to go any further. So that’s just setting up where I was living.
There was a summer youth program in Stockton that helped teenagers get jobs and you could actually get a job anywhere. My older brothers were around 17 and 18 and they got jobs at the University of the Pacific working on the grounds and I wanted to go with them. And so I did. I had free rein of the whole place because I was unsupervised. I played anywhere I wanted on campus and it was a beautiful campus. One day my brothers went off to work and I went off to play, and I was playing and walking down the sidewalks, going up hills and looking at trees and bushes and looking at wide lawns and watching people, when I found a little tin box. It was probably about one inch square, a little shiny box and it caught my attention. I picked it up and I opened it and on the inside of the lid it said Happy Pills and there were three white, round, shiny pills in it. And I remember thinking ‘Wow.’ I didn’t really know what it was and what it meant, but I wanted to keep it so I put it in my pocket. I remember going home and thinking, you know I was seven years old, and I’m thinking, ‘Happy pills. What is that?’
I didn’t want to ask anybody because I didn’t want anybody to take them away. But in my mind, I always thought, ‘What are they?’ Then one day I thought, ‘I’ll take one’ and so I did. It was in the late afternoon. It was a hot summer day. And within an hour, I realized that something was not right. I really didn’t know how to explain it to anybody. I didn’t want to go to my dad, or my brothers or anybody and say, ‘Hey, I took this pill.’ I didn’t really know what I was experiencing, but I knew that something wasn’t correct; I was not my normal self. I really didn’t know what to do, so I decided that I should just go walking, because I love to walk. And so I decided to go to the canal. I was familiar with it. It wasn’t very far away. I went to the canal but this time I decided to go in the unfamiliar direction. I’d always been curious about it, like, ‘What’s that way?’ because we would always play on the other side.
I remember it was hot. I kept walking and walking and it was all new to me, which was really cool. But I was still feeling very strange. All I could think of is, ‘I better keep walking.’ Then this truck came up. The area was patrolled by the Agricultural Department. They would ride up and down, checking the waterways for different fields. When the truck came up to me and stopped, I remembered my father had always said, when somebody talks to you, introduce yourself, and ask them their name. It was a Mexican man and he had an Agricultural Department shirt on. He didn’t get out of his truck, he just said, ‘Hey, what are you doing out here?’ I said, ‘I’m just walking, sir.’ And then he asked my name, and I said, ‘My name is Alex Castillo.’ And I asked him his name. And I remember his name was Thomas Sanchez. And I repeated it because my father always taught me to repeat somebody’s name. And then I said, ‘Mr. Thomas Sanchez, it’s nice to meet you.’
And at one point, he stuck his arm out the door and just put it on the side of the truck. And I looked at his arm. He was probably in his 30s, a young man. And he was very vascular. He had a lot of veins in his arms and his hands. I remember looking at his arm and thinking I hadn’t seen anybody’s arm that looked like that before. I looked and looked and I had a realization that there was blood in his arms because I knew that there was blood in my arms, and that blood was flowing through his body. But I had never seen anybody that vascular. It just struck me like, ‘Wow!’ So I watched his arm for a little while. Finally he said, ‘Are you going to be up here for a while? Or are you going home?’ And I told him I was going home. And he asked me if I was okay or if I needed anything. I told him, ‘I think I’m okay’ and he left.
At some point I realized that it was getting dark, and that I needed to go back. Being at the canal in the daytime was fine, but at night, it was a scary place, at least as a kid. I had come upon a couple of bridges that I had never seen before, but I thought I was going the right way until finally, I realized, ‘I’m going the wrong way.’ I panicked, and it was dark by now. I remember needing to run, needing to get back home, and started running. Then I had another realization. I realized, ‘There’s nothing out here that’s gonna hurt me. Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean there’s going to be monsters or anything.’ So I started walking again and I calmed down.
I came upon one bridge and I decided that I needed to get up to the street and see if I could find my way home. A car pulled up beside me. It was a family. I can’t remember their names, but it was mother, father, a son and daughter. They were in a station wagon, I remember the car, and the mother says, ‘What are you doing out here?’ And I said, ‘I think I’m lost.’ She asked, ‘Where do you live?’ and I said, ‘I live on Delta Street.’ ‘We don’t know where that is.’ I said, ‘Near Cardinal Street and Bird Street.’ And they knew where Bird Street was so the father told me to get into the car and I introduced myself and everybody introduced themselves. I remember them looking at me strange, like I was a strange kid, but I was so relieved to be in a car and going home, and they took me all the way to my house.
I didn’t want to go inside so I decided just to sit outside in the back. I was not sleepy or tired, I was tripping. I was still wide awake and still trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Morning came and I decided to go back to the canal, but this time I walked the way that I knew and I didn’t go very far. I remember being at ease there, not having to explain myself to anybody. And I had another realization there. It was another hot day and I walked underneath a big plant. I looked up at this huge leaf and realized that it was also vascular. I could see the veins and the structure of that leaf and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s alive like me.’ But I knew it didn’t have blood, because I’d never seen a plant that had blood. But I remember spending hours looking at it, just wondering, ‘What the heck?’ And then I realized that we were all like that. Every human was like that and every plant was like that. That we were all alive.
It lasted for four days. I drank water, but I didn’t eat. I went up to the canal every day. Finally when the pill started wearing off, I remember thinking as I walked home that I had missed four days. My brothers would usually go to the park and play basketball or baseball and I hadn’t been doing that. Then I realized that I didn’t want to want to be on a team. I didn’t want to play sports. I thought it was stupid. I just stopped doing certain things as a kid. I no longer lived in a make-believe world. I realized that things were real and that people were real. And we were all in the same boat. Because I realized there were things that were unnecessary and weren’t realistic and didn’t really benefit me or anybody else, it affected my whole life after that
I became intrigued with pills. I never took another one of those Happy Pills, but I knew that it was some kind of medicine and I became really interested in drugs. At that time, there were all kinds of illicit drugs going around. I sought them out. When I got to be 12 or 13, I would go downtown and I found out what heroin was. I tried it. I tried all kinds of drugs as a young man, just to see what that was about. I remember going to drug stores and going to the over-the-counter section, and looking at what the drugs were. I started reading the labels and figuring out what I could understand and what I couldn’t. I realized that there were chemicals out there that altered the way you thought or were medicinal and helped you with illnesses. Methamphetamine wasn’t a big thing then, but there were many different things like that, and I did try those. But I never did it twice. The only thing that I did more than once was smoke weed. I knew that it was altering me as well and it wasn’t good for me to keep doing it on a consistent basis, so I decided that I wouldn’t, but I felt like I understood a little more about drugs, even illicit drugs, and why people would take them.
As a teenager, I was more interested in the topic of drugs and medicine and nothing else really seemed to interest me. It wasn’t until I decided to go to college that I got more involved in reading labels and going to pharmacies and looking at the people that were working back there. The whole thing was intriguing to me. At this time, I lived in Idaho and I finished my associates degree in science there. I decided that I wanted to go to pharmacy school at the University of Wyoming. I remember going to my first day of pharmacy classes and being so excited that I was going to learn about drugs, the real drugs, the real way, in a professional way.
When I graduated, I decided to go into retail pharmacy and I liked it for a while, but my dream job did not really work out. I wasn’t making any new discoveries about drugs; I was mostly dealing with people – some sick people and some mean people and some egotistical people. The doctors could be very frustrating. I didn’t like filling out insurance forms for prescriptions and being bogged down all day long trying to figure out if insurance was going to cover the medicine. I saw how inflated the cost of those drugs were. I remember one instance where a diabetic lady had a weekly prescription that was over $1,000. So I got disillusioned and after being a pharmacist for 15 years, I left the profession.”