A Novel About Being Bi-Polar: “Composing Amelia” by Alison Strobel

Composing Amelia

Can a brand new marriage withstand the weight of generations-old baggage?

Newlyweds Amelia and Marcus Sheffield are recent college grads trying to stay afloat in LA while searching for their dream jobs. Marcus hopes to become a mega-church pastor. Amelia has an esteemed music degree and longs to play piano professionally. The Sheffields are clearly city people.

But when a small town church offers Marcus a job, the couple’s dedication to their dreams and each other is tested. After a risky compromise is made, Amelia falls into a dark emotional place, where she finds skeletons she’d fought hard to deny. In desperation, she calls out to God. But why can’t she find Him? While Amelia struggles, Marcus learns news that nearly crushes him. He must lean on his faith to withstand the pressure… or risk losing his wife forever.

You can purchase Composing Amelia at Amazon.comBarnes & Noble.com and ChristianBook.com.

Behind the Scenes of Composing Amelia

I love to learn more about the books I read–what inspired the authors to write them, where characters’ or town names came from, that sort of thing–and I really enjoy it when authors take the time to provide little extras for their readers that help make their books come alive. Composing Amelia is the first book for which I’m providing some of this extra content, and I hope in the future to have similar content for all my books. I hope you enjoy these little tidbits and extras, and that they help you to connect with Amelia and book even more.

The music of Composing Amelia

One of my favorite parts of writing this book was choosing the songs that Amelia played, listened to, or referenced throughout the story. It was an opportunity for me to not only highlight some of my favorite pieces and artists, but to learn more about classical music and sit around listening to CDs, something I rarely do anymore. Once upon a time I was a maniac about music–two years of piano in junior high did nothing for me, but I sang in choirs, musicals, and on worship teams from elementary school all the way up until our first daughter was born. I really enjoyed the chance to indulge in music-speak again!

Here are links to the songs and albums mentioned in the book. I hope you’re able to take a few minutes to click around and listen to them!

Mozart’s Alla Turca, from Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Minor, K 331. – Okay, nothing special about this song in particular, other than I liked it, but the inclusion of a few Mozart compositions is intentional. He’s my favorite composer, partly because his music is awesome, partly because Amadeus is one of my favorite movies, and partly because we share a birthday—with a few hundred years in between.

Gershwin’s Prelude no. 2 in C Sharp minor

Beethoven’s Für Elise

Hot Honey Rag, from the musical Chicago – one of my favorite musical movies. Wasn’t wild about the stage show, but I thought the movie was so creative. The video this links to is from the movie, where the song is combined with “Nowadays”. I was really hoping to find a piano-only version of Hot Honey Rag, but while I found links to sheet music, I couldn’t find a video of anyone playing it. If you find one, let me know!

~ Les Miserables – This is my absolute, most favorite musical of all time. I’ve seen it in London, Chicago, and Costa Mesa (Orange County, CA), a total of ten times in all (soon to be eleven, when I see it in Denver!). My singing voice has deteriorated since I became a mom–too much time spent whispering songs to put my girls to sleep (did you know whispering is really hard on your vocal chords?), but I can still sing “On My Own” and “I Dreamed a Dream” nearly pitch-perfect because I’ve sung them so many times since discovering the musical in junior high. I was going to link to my favorite song, but then realized I don’t have a favorite–the whole show is mind-blowing. And the themes of redemption, grace, and sacrifice are so beautiful–it’s truly a Christ-centered show. So, instead of linking to one song, I’m linking to the 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Yes, it is over two hours long. And yes, it will be worth every second and every tissue you go through.

~ Precious Things – (WARNING: somewhat explicit lyrics) Once upon a time, I was a Tori Amos junkie. You know how every friendship and dating relationship you ever have leaves you with at least one thing that lasts forever? Tori’s music was the one thing that lasted from my first-ever sort-of dating relationship. This particular song is a little rough around the edges, but pain is like that sometimes, and you can’t always pretty it up and still be true to how you feel. Tori is a poster child for how the church can sometimes mishandle artists and outside-the-box thinkers: she was raised as a minister’s child but wandered far, far from the faith because they couldn’t handle her questions and unconventional views. So sad. Anyway…this first link is to a concert clip of her playing the song, back when she toured alone with her piano. The song doesn’t sound as angry here as it does in the original album recording, however, so here’s a link to that for comparison’s sake and so you can see why Amelia would have turned to that song when she was so mad at Marcus.

~ Court & Spark (album) – I discovered Joni Mitchell through a pianist on an Alaskan cruise I went on in 2002. A.ma.zing. (Both the album and the pianist I met.) Beautiful music for when you’re feeling a little melancholy, or for when it’s raining and you’re alone in the house, or when you want to be put in an introspective mood. Trouble Child was the original title of Composing Amelia and was part of the inspiration for the story. I’d list favorite tracks but nearly all of them are favorites, so instead I’ll say that, in my opinion, skipping Just Like This Train wouldn’t be the end of the world. Obviously I can’t link to the entire album, so here’s the title song  and here is a link to the album on Amazon so you can hear a sample of all the songs (and buy it if you’d like!).

Lento from Marche funibre from Chopin’s Sonata #2 in B Flat minor

Little Earthquakes (album) – The first Tori Amos album, and still my favorite. Winter is the most perfect song ever. I tear up every time I hear the music-box-like intro.

Corner of the Sky & Love Song, from the musical Pippin. I was a choir geek in high school—one of those people who used the choir room as her personal locker and spent most of her free time hanging out with other choir geeks there. I was in Madrigals and Concert Choir, and I desperately wanted to do musical theater but was way too self-conscious. Pippin was the musical my sophomore year. I wanted to try out so badly, but I didn’t know anything about it and was ridiculously afraid of the unknown. So I didn’t. My best friend did, and sometimes I’d go watch rehearsals and spend most of the time there hating myself for not trying out. To this day, Corner of the Sky is one of my top favorite musical theater songs. Here it’s being performed by the composer, who might not be the best singer in the world, but it’s cool to hear the story behind it and see it performed by him. (The sound is really quiet in the beginning for some reason, but once he starts singing it’s much easier to hear him.) This version of Love Song is, I believe, from the 1981 Broadway show. Here you can definitely hear the 70′s roots of the musical–it is a little bit cheesy, but still a good song! (Check out the actor playing Pippin–you children of the 80′s who grew up in front of the TV might recognize him…)

Ballroom Blitz – Raise your hand if the first thing you think of when you hear this song is Wayne’s World!

Pachabel’s Canon – The most overplayed piano composition in the world, next to Chopsticks and Heart and Soul, but still one of my favorites.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 15 in C

Nothing But the Blood – I didn’t grow up with hymns—I think Amazing Grace is the only one I knew by the time I was in high school—but once I discovered them I fell in love. This has always been one of my favorites. I had a hard time finding a decent version to link to—everyone keeps messing with it! But this is a great clip of a very talented young man performing all the parts himself. Go David!

Christ the Lord is Risen Today – This version is just guitar without voices, but it’s lovely so I thought I’d link it.

More Love to Thee, O Christ – This isn’t at all the way New Hope Church would have done it in the book, but the gospel lover in me couldn’t pass up the chance to link to it. (Silly trivia: I was one of 5 white singers in the Black Choir at the University of Illinois when I was in college. I’ve never had so much fun singing in a choir (or gone hoarse so often!) as I did for the semester I sang there.)

Piano Brands and Types

I had no idea when I started my research that there were so many pianos out there! I found this list fascinating and used some of its information in the book. Now you know what Amelia was referring to when she said she wouldn’t have cared if the piano she was playing was an Everett!

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I can’t remember what month it was, but I do remember the weather: overcast, sprinkling rain, about 60 degrees—in other words, a typical day in Glasgow, Scotland. I was checking email before the English Lit class I was taking during my junior year abroad, and as usual I had a note from my best friend, Jen. We’d been roommates for a year and a half before I’d left for my overseas adventure, and during that time together she’d become a Christian and undergone quite a bit of life change. I missed her, and was always glad to see she’d written. But this time her note froze my blood.

“I feel like I want to kill myself.”

She talked about insomnia, about depression, about an inability to think straight or pray away the dark thoughts from her mind. I read the note with my mouth hanging open. This was not the Jen I knew. What had happened?

It would be another two years before that question would be answered. After time spent in the hospital, classes missed and bizarre behavior observed, she found a psychiatrist who was able to give her a diagnosis. Jen had developed bipolar disease.

Many people were sympathetic. Most were supportive and encouraging. But, there were a few whose responses were abominable. Like the chaplain Jen spoke to while hospitalized during a suicidal depression who told her she wasn’t praying hard enough. Or the guy she met at church who confidently assured her God would heal her if she had enough faith, just liked He’d healed him from his bipolar disorder.

So, as a public service announcement that will hopefully spare other mental illness sufferers (Christian and otherwise) from the same uneducated comments, let me lay out a few things here.

  1. Mental illness is not always a reflection of one’s spiritual state. Can it be? Of course—God can use any affliction or experience as a means to wake someone up to the depravity of their soul. But to make a blanket statement to that effect is illogical and blatantly false. Genetics, stressful life events or experiences, and even major nutrient deficiencies can all play into the development of a mental illness, and as we all know, being a Christian doesn’t protect us from any of those things. Scripture never says that all illness is a reflection of the soul, and it also doesn’t say that prayer will fix everything. We’re told that God can use all things for good for those who love Him—but it doesn’t say He’ll spare them from pain.
  2. Sufferers of mental illness cannot control their brain chemistry. To tell someone with bipolar disorder, or chemical depression, or any other illness in that vein that they need to just get over it/snap out of it/etc. without medication is like telling a Type 1 diabetic that they should be able to control their disease without insulin. Can they control some of the factors that can worsen their disease? Of course. But even that will only help so much, and while some sufferers are able to weather their depressions and manias without medication, it doesn’t mean they don’t still get them.
  3. Developing a mental illness is like falling down the rabbit hole—your entire reality shifts. I don’t just mean your general outlook on life. I mean that, when you are in the throes of depression, or mania, or a schizophrenic episode, or what have you, your perception of reality really does change. Logic is no longer logical. Reason can go out the window. And that’s why you can’t talk someone out of such a state.
  4. Sufferers of mental illness are not demon-possessed, nor are they contagious. While they likely will appreciate your prayers on their behalf, they will likely NOT appreciate being prayed over as though they have opened themselves up to dark forces or treated as though they could somehow “infect” others just by being in their presence.
  5. Unless the sufferer specifically asks for them, the offering of opinions on the sufferer’s spiritual state, prayer life, etc. is inappropriate. I don’t know anyone with a mental illness who hasn’t spent hours on their knees begging God for healing. Having a mental illness can destroy a person’s life, and being told that you’re just not praying hard enough or just don’t have enough faith is not only demoralizing, it’s not anyone’s call to make. Instead, pray for their perseverance in finding the right doctor, in taking medication, in pursuing therapy, and in trusting God to sustain them, and pray that God will show them mercy and bring them healing.

Praise be to God, there are advances being made in the treatment of disorders like these, and maybe someday further research will uncover even more effective drug regimens and therapy approaches that will help sufferers to better handle them. Until then, reach out a helping hand, lend a listening ear, and join with them in prayer as they fight to maintain a normal life in the face of what is often debilitating and discouraging. Having a mental illness doesn’t have to mean the worst, and with the right support team a sufferer can thrive. Jen had her share of dark times, but God’s hand in her life remained clear and active. Thanks to the work of the great therapist and knowledgeable psychiatrist He led her to, she was able to complete college and find an excellent job. Life since her diagnosis hasn’t been easy, but God has remained faithful, and her experiences have brought healing to her family as well. Thank you, God, for the promise of your help in times of trouble. Jen is living proof that You keep Your word.


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