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Shawn Soto and his son Michael during a wrestling tournament.
In a Facebook world dominated by selfies and wrestling kittens, 33-year-old Shawn Soto of South Roxana is using the social medium to spread as much encouragement and positive energy as he can.
“Live your life like someone was modeling theirs after yours. It may help someone live a better life,” a recent posting from Shawn states. “Stay hungry, stay humble, and never be satisfied.”
Over time, those posts have gained more and more attention. They are shared on pages throughout Facebook, and he receives regular feedback on the positive impact they make.
Every post, however, is born of personal struggle and heartache, of which the author has had many. For Shawn, the nightmare began in 2007.
“I had had some surgeries and also was suffering from depression,” Shawn says. “I started taking prescription pills and it was from there that I started developing addiction problems.”
When the need grew beyond his own prescriptions, he began using other people’s prescriptions, eventually buying them off the street. At its worst, Shawn was taking 10 to 12 1,000-milligram pills of Vicodin at a time, including a handful at night to be able to go to sleep.
The addiction also grew to include Xanax and other prescription drugs, as well.
“I was completely conscious of it, and knew I had a real problem, even though I was good at hiding it,” he says. “My friends and my boss didn’t even know.”
In the end, it was his children who were the strongest motivation to get clean.
“I had one child from a previous marriage, and another baby that came in the middle of my addiction,” he says. “I was ashamed, and I knew I had to stop.
“The withdrawal was miserable. It felt like a really bad flu that wouldn’t go away.”
Looking back, Shawn says he didn’t realize until later just how serious the problem had become.
“I come across other people who think they may be too far gone, but you just don’t hear of many people taking it to the level that I did. I say if I can stop, anyone can stop.”
As often is the case, severe depression set in following the addiction.
“I was clean, but still wasn’t taking care of myself,” he says. “In September of 2012, I had a seizure and rolled my car five times. They said it could have been from a spot on my brain, but I think it was the aftermath of the addiction.”
One morning in mid-December, Shawn woke up in pain, similar to that of a broken rib. By six that evening, the pain had caused him to lose consciousness. When he arrived at the emergency room, they discovered his entire left lung was filled with fluid.
Without even knowing it, Shawn had a severe case of pneumonia. When antibiotics didn’t prove effective, they inserted a chest tube to help drain the fluid.
“I was lying there thinking I should not be in that much pain,” he says. “I thought I was having a heart attack.”
Eventually, Shawn was rushed to X-ray and then to an operating room filled with anxious-looking medical personnel. That is when he learned while inserting the chest tube, an artery had been nicked, collapsing a lung and causing his chest cavity to fill with blood. An emergency thoracotomy was performed to drain the blood and repair the artery.
“Before they put me out, the doctor told me there was a chance I would never wake up,” Shawn recalls.
He survived the surgery, but was told not to expect much in the way of recovery, lung capacity or quality of life.
After everything he had gone through, that was when Shawn’s survival instincts really kicked in.
“My girlfriend and I walked into the ICU and there he was, lying there hooked up to tubes, wires and machines,” close friend Matt McDarby said. “I knew he had almost died, and yet when I looked him in the eyes I saw life. I could see pain, but what I didn’t see was ‘quit’ in his eyes.”
Sure enough, during McDarby’s next visit Shawn already had been transferred to a regular room, where he was telling the nurse he wanted to sit up. When she hesitated, he replied with, “I wasn’t asking.” So McDarby was able to sit next to his friend side by side as Shawn laid out his goals, including the plan to be home by Christmas.
“I thought no matter how long it takes, this was not going to beat me,” Shawn says. “I have two sons, and I have to fight so I can be there for them. The doctor put me back on prescription drugs, but I threw them out. That is when I really knew I had conquered my addiction.
“Don’t go against what a doctor says, but don’t sit at home and stop living, either. There’s no reason to give up on life. If you stand still, the world will leave you behind, so move forward no matter what.”
Today, Shawn is drug-free, back to work, and enjoying a renewed commitment to his family, including his parents, Mike and Lori; brother, Shane; aunt, Kathy, as well as the family he has created with girlfriend, Valerie, and sons Michael, 6, and Brayden, 3.
A wrestler with Dynamo Pro Wrestling in St. Louis, he also is back on the mat and, on the two-year anniversary of his surgery, broke his own record in the gym, benching 365 pounds and achieving 405 pounds in squats.
Another change in his life is the commitment to post daily affirmations on Facebook, and says he is surprised at the impact it is having on others.
“I never know what I am going to say,” he says. “I just know I was a self-centered guy before; it was all about me. I am just trying to change that.”
“One of the first things I do in the mornings is check his motivational posts,” McDarby added. “People in these situations either roll over and die or find a new lease on life. Shawn looked death right in the face and did not give up. People quote Zig Zigler, Tony Robbins, Henry Rollins … one day I think, no, I know people will be quoting Shawn Soto.”
“I hope my story can inspire someone to change their life and be able to overcome the demons,” another of Shawn’s motivational posts states. “Have a great day!”