Fire and Heart: Finding Silver Linings When the Universe Hates You

by Melissa Geissinger

What Happened to Me

Hi, I'm Melissa. In October of 2017 I became a victim of the Tubbs Fire that burned through Santa Rosa, California. Then two months later, I gave birth to my son Apollo, who would have four major surgeries before he was eight months old as a result of a severe heart defect.

The last time I sat down to write my story, I was still living my trauma. I was struggling with what I have come to realize a lot of women go through after having a baby, only magnified because of my son's heart condition.

Read this First: Motherhood, PTSD and the Loss of Optimism

Motherhood, PTSD and the Loss of Optimism

May 22, 2018

Strength and perseverance has always come easy to me. I’ve always been a ‘glass half full’ kind of person. To be fair, I haven’t had the hardest life, but I can usually find a very clear path forward whenever the universe decides to make things interesting.

The universe lately has had one sick sense of humor.

Read More

In the Year Since That Mother's Day

I was in a really awful place back then. I'm grateful for the fact that I was able to write it down and share it despite still being in the thick of my trauma.

And it wasn't even over yet. In August of 2018 we were looking forward to Apollo's last surgery for a while where he would have a take-down of his ileostomy (poop through his butt again) and insertion of a g-tube into his stomach since he still wouldn't take a bottle.

The surgery went well, but he caught a cold right after. It nearly took him out. I'm not just saying that. He coded while in the CICU (cardiac intensive care unit). He got upset and cried, and next thing we knew his oxygen level started plummeting. Doctors and nurses rushed in and they frantically tried to administer drugs that would calm him down. His oxygen level is normally 75-85. It got as low as 19 before they intubated (put in a breathing tube) and saved his life.

So all I wrote about before? I take it all back. That was the new worst day of my life. 

Since then, the traumas haven't been on the same scale, but the effect has been similar. When Apollo was released from the hospital last September, a month after he was admitted for surgery, he came home on oxygen. This was after Cole and I had decided we would be fine to live on our own again for the first time since the fires, almost a year later.

So we moved into our new rental home in Bodega Bay, on a bluff above the ocean. A year-long vacation, we told ourselves. Surely just being out here would make us feel better.

And to some extent, we were right. It has been like therapy for us. But you know what we quickly found out we needed? Real therapy.

What I learned from therapy

When we finally got settled in at home was when the true effects of PTSD and trauma started to manifest. This is the part that people don't talk about as much, or pay attention to because it's not easily understood like a fire or a heart defect.

It's the triggers, some more rational than others, that send you spinning out down a path of overwhelm. They make you forget yourself, and forget to be kind to the people closest to you.

Let me try to explain what a trigger does to you. Here's a scenario: Apollo is 5 days away from being out of a medication he needs for his heart. You put an order in for the medication via the Kaiser app. Last time you ordered it, the doctor needed to put in her approval first, only you didn't know because you weren't given instructions about it. The doctor didn't see it so he got his meds late. This time you make sure the order goes through properly, but 4 days go by and the pharmacy hasn't texted or called that it's ready. So you call the pharmacy and they say they don't have it in stock and need to order it. It will be at least another 3 days. "You should always put the order in 5 days in advance," they say. Rage. They check to see if another pharmacy has it. Another one does. I go there. They don't have it. Send me to another pharmacy. Finally, they have it. Something literally goes wrong about 80% of the time when picking up medication. All you can say to yourself in that scenario is Why does the Universe hate me? 

So we moved into our new home, and Cole and I fought more than ever. Triggers like the above kept happening over and over and we realized we were in essence addicted to the trauma. We were so convinced that The Universe was against us that we didn't realize that the only thing that was stopping us from being okay, or being happy, was us.

I started having legit panic attacks. My anxiety got so bad that I felt like I was having a heart attack.

We opted to do couples therapy together. It saved us. So did going on medication for anxiety and depression. We just needed to train ourselves to find our way to our new normal. A big part of understanding that was recognizing that we were still physically experiencing the effects of PTSD, and that it was out of our control.

What could we do? Focus on the things that we could control. Figure out what we could actively do every day to be okay.

Reflecting Back And What I've Learned

I'm doing okay now. I'm definitely past the worst of it, but it's a hard reading back what I wrote a year ago remembering just how helpless I felt.

So much of what we did along the way was hunt for silver linings.

House burned down? Now we don't have to fix the fence.

Son had a complication after surgery and had to have his appendix removed because it shriveled up and died? At least he won't be at risk for appendicitis when he's older.

Every time we made a choice to talk about a silver lining, it was because we had to. We knew we had to find something, anything good about the situation because the rest was too awful to wrap our heads around. It's a survival tactic. It's reaching for a life preserver when you're drowning.

Most people think that I've been okay for a while now. But it's been hard. This is what it came down to for me. For us. Our therapist told us that after everything we've went through together, the odds were against us. Not many couples can find a way through and come out the other end together. Well, thankfully neither of us would take no for an answer.

It's still hard sometimes, but looking back I can't help but be proud of what I've done. I know that I've made choices along the way to survive. Maybe it was surviving a moment, or a day, and sometimes it was a marriage. But every time it was a choice, and it was mine to make. And now with every step my life moves forward and I begin living again, I know it's because I'm choosing it.

New glasses

Melissa Geissinger

Melissa is a writer, serial entrepreneur, and a heart mom. She started Survival Over Surrender in May of 2019. She lives in Bodega Bay with her husband Cole, son Apollo, two dogs and two cats. She enjoys cooking, writing, photography, live music, daydreaming, and convincing herself to get outside because she's always happiest when she's exploring. 


  1. Sophia Sebring on May 25, 2019 at 8:32 am

    Fantastic read ♡ I adore you and your little family ♡

  2. Ellen on May 27, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    Wow, Melissa – I just read this entry. Sending love and hugs and healing your way. You’re amazing for sharing these deeply personal things. And an inspiration.

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