What is the story related to mental health, suicide, and/or resilience that you’d like to share?
My name is Billie Sutton. I am a former professional rodeo cowboy, state senator, and 2018 candidate for governor of South Dakota. I’m a husband, father, financial professional, and rancher. My story is about trauma, loss, and perseverance.
I grew up on my family ranch in rural Burke, South Dakota – population 600. I still live there today because I love Burke and the way of life I learned here. I started riding horses as early as I can remember. I fell in love with horses and with rodeo. My childhood dream was to be a world champion rodeo cowboy, and I worked really hard to make it happen.
My senior year of high school, I finished second in the nation in saddle bronc riding at the National High Schools Finals Rodeo. That earned me a full ride to the University of Wyoming on a rodeo scholarship. I went on to be the all-time top points scorer at UW and started rodeoing professionally. Rodeo was my plan for the future. My dream was to make it to the National Finals Rodeo, and I was on my way. I didn’t know I would soon face a challenge much harder than all my years of training and traveling as an athlete.
It was October 4, 2007. I was 23 years old, had been rodeoing professionally for a few years, and was competing at the Badlands Circuit Finals Rodeo in Minot, North Dakota.
I had drawn a horse named Ruby. I got in the chute, just like any other ride. But before I could nod my head to open the chute, Ruby flipped over on me, slamming my back against the chute gate. Ruby stood up. And I knew I had broken my back. I was instantly paralyzed from the waist down.
From that day on, everything would change.
When I woke up in a hospital in Minneapolis, I remember thinking about how I had my whole life planned out. Even at 23, I had been sure how it was going to go. I was going to be a world champion bronc rider and one day return home to run the family ranch.
But, instead, now I was being told that I would never ride bucking horses again. That I likely would never walk again. That was the most sobering moment of my life.
It was often a dark and difficult path. Full of uncertainty, frustration, jealousy, and anger.
Only with a wide and deep support network did I realize my spinal cord injury was something I could and would overcome. Despite many moments of despair, people who loved me, a sense of community, and my faith ultimately sustained me and gave me hope for the future.
I’ve gone on to finish college, get married, pursue a beautiful career in financial services and government, start a leadership nonprofit, and best of all – make a family. I want everyone to have the resources and support I did when I got hurt, and I’ll never stop working on building a world where that is possible.
I had thought (perhaps naively) that my spinal cord injury would be the hardest thing I’d ever face. But in 2020, I once again needed the support of so many people to help grieve the loss of our baby daughter, Lenore Antonia. She lived with us for just one week, and on the seventh day, my wife and I held her while she took her last breaths.
Lenny was all our best dreams, and we could never live without her if we weren’t told so many times by so many people that we are loved and we aren’t alone. We found purpose in helping build Lenny’s Lilly Pad at the Burke City Park – a place to remember her and many other children our community has lost too young. We found healing in the most precious gift of twin boys from our friend and surrogate earlier this spring. We have found a way to walk that most difficult path and hold grief and hope together.
If we can surround ourselves with people that love and support us, and lean into that support, I’ve found struggles like mine can make us stronger. They can teach us how to keep hope by living the values of empathy, thoughtfulness, kindness, and understanding.
I hope you too always persevere, overcome adversity, and never give up.
What resources have helped you to address this challenge?
Family was the biggest resource, but I have also gone to counseling at Rising Hope Counseling, LLC, in Burke South Dakota. Talking about my loss helped me a lot.
Based on your experience, how can we work to build resilience in ourselves, our loved ones, and in our communities to better face life’s challenges?
Tell your story. It is healing to tell your story, and it can help others to hear your story. It will also build understanding and empathy. Everyone goes through struggles in life, and we need to understand that we are not alone. Often times people do not know that we are struggling, but if we talk about those struggles it can bring healing and help.
What is one thing related to mental health, suicide, or resilience that you wish everyone could understand?
No one is immune to struggling with mental health, and we are not alone in those struggles.
Listen to the latest episode of Great Minds with Lost&Found, featuring a conversation with Billie Sutton and Kelsea Kenzy Sutton!
Find other listening options on Anchor.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube: