In April 2017, Shawn Livingston quit drugs.
Without a job and facing a 20-year prison sentence, the military veteran and addict from Ohio went to rehab. When he got through that, he started running.
Now Austin filmmaker Andrew Shebay has produced an hourlong documentary that he hopes will spur honest conversations about addiction and mental health. "Woke the Monster" follows Livingston, who lives and trains in Austin, as he prepares for and runs a 100-mile trail race through the Appalachian Mountains of Alabama. The story weaves in interviews with Livingston’s mother, stepfather and sister, and includes flashbacks to his time in the military, when a doctor prescribed painkillers for an injury — an incident he says "woke the monster" of addiction inside him.
Livingston grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where he once thought he partied about as much as everyone else. As he got older, though, he fell in and out of drug use.
"I think the addict gene was in me," he says.
He served in the Air Force Reserves for six years, then bounced from state to state, getting mixed up in drugs and trying to start anew each time. In 2007, he joined the Army and was stationed in Fort Hood, then sent to Iraq. When he was injured during a training drill there, a doctor treated him with painkillers, spurring a slide that only worsened when he returned to Texas.
Livingston began abusing painkillers and, later, heroin, which he says gave him total body euphoria that he describes in the film as "the best, warmest blanket wrapped around you." Then a close friend died of a drug overdose.
Eventually Livingston wound up in Austin, facing a possible 20-year prison sentence on drug charges. He went to a drug treatment center and ultimately got probation instead of prison.
He decided to make big changes.
"I didn’t like who I saw in the mirror physically," Livingston says. "I had always grown up an athlete, and that had gone away. I just started concentrating on the food I was putting into my body and wanted to do anything I could to start getting back my physical health. At the time, I was still smoking cigarettes and when I tried to go out for a 2-mile run, I could barely finish."
He kept running, though, and eventually met Penny Lane, an avid Austin athlete who welcomed him into the trail running community and gave his life direction.
"There’s something very therapeutic about getting out in nature, away from buildings and cell phones and Wi-Fi and among the trees and dirt," Livingston says. He decided to run the Pinhoti 100, a grueling, point-to-point endurance race over ridges, rocks and creeks in the Talladega National Forest of Alabama.
"The cool part was to awaken the energy to do something else, like running 100 miles," he says.
Shebay, head of a production company called Pipeline Films in Austin, wanted to tell his story from the family’s perspective as well as the addict’s perspective.
"A million-plus families out there are living with mental health and addiction issues," Shebay says. "I wanted people to see Shawn, this guy with all these tattoos, and think, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’"
Livingston agreed. He’d worked with Shebay to create a three-minute video and found the experience therapeutic.
"Once we did that video, everybody knew everything about me — heroin addict, been to prison — but it gave me the ability to own it," he says. "I started receiving a crazy amount of messages from people saying how inspiring it was or how they were suffering from same thing. I realized I had the ability to help people."
The documentary tells the story of Livingston’s addiction through his struggle to finish that grueling 100-mile race. It weaves in glimpses of Livingston’s childhood, along with interviews with his family, flashbacks from the military and his days of shooting up.
To make the film, Shebay and the crew met Livingston at 17 aid stations during the November 2018 race, positioning themselves in the woods with cameras and using drones to capture footage. Livingston also carried a GoPro for a few solitary stretches.
"The 100-mile race was my anchor for the film," Shebay says. "As you go through that race, it’s like going through Shawn’s journeys — the ups and downs through his whole life. There were so many great metaphors that connected straight to him."
"Woke the Monster" screened at the (virtual) Thin Line Film Fest in Denton in March, and in April it won a Gold Remi award at WorldFest-Houston. Shebay has submitted it to other film festivals and is planning a special Austin showing later this year.
"Shawn’s not a celebrity, a Michael Jordan of running. I think a lot of people can relate to him, and I think that’s the best thing about it," Shebay says. "Going through recovery can seem like running 100 miles, but it’s not impossible."
Today when he speaks to others who have dealt with addiction or abuse, Livingston tells them they have an opportunity to be somebody’s "pacer" because of what they’ve been through.
"Everybody has life experience," he says. "If you’re fortunate enough to make it on the other side, use it to help others. Be somebody’s pacer."
Livingston still runs, and has placed in and won several endurance races. Longtime Austin trail runner Joe Prusaitis began coaching him and introduced him to Band of Runners, which works with military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I knew Shawn could help all these other vets climb out of their hole," Prusaitis says. "He’s wide awake, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. He’s praying to the temple of the body at this point, and doing everything he can to put himself mentally and physically in good shape. He’s one hell of a cool dude."
Livingston also works with at-risk youths and people in drug treatment. He speaks publicly about his experiences and volunteers with Band of Runners.
"It exactly lines up with everything I’m about — introducing veterans to an avenue to channel all that energy," Livingston says. "Through ultra-running, I’ve gotten that sense of accomplishment back in my life."