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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I’m Just the Messenger ~ The Story Behind Composing Amelia By Alison Strobel

Alison inherited her writing gene from her father, Lee, and grew up comprising stories on everything from napkins to typewriters. Her talent earned her many awards throughout school, a two page spread featuring her work in her senior yearbook, and even saved her from failing college chemistry. it wasn’t until she moved to California after college that she wrote her first full-length novel, and that’s when God made Alison’s lifelong dream come true.

Alison and her family now live in Colorado. When she’s not writing, she reading, obsessively stalking her favorite online parenting forum, playing pet store(or reading books or teaching homeschool) with her daughters or out with the whole gang exploring their new home state.
You can visit her website here

An Unexpected Encounter

When I was in college, God brought me together with a roommate named Jen. We quickly became friends, and our sophomore year God used our late night chats to bring her into a relationship with Him. The transformation was awesome. She was on fire, a natural evangelist. She stood strong in the face of persecution from friends and family. The presence of the Spirit was almost palpable when you were around her.

I spent my junior year abroad, and one morning I checked my email and found a message from her. It said, “I am so depressed. I want to kill myself.”

It came from nowhere, at least for me, six time zones and an ocean away. My mental picture of her was still that of a young woman living passionately for Christ. I didn’t know about the slow descent into depression she had endured over the last few months, or the history of mental illness that ran in her family. Although curiously, neither did she. It was a carefully hidden family secret—but one you can’t run from when it’s inside your DNA.

For the next three years, Jen struggled to first get a diagnosis, then to get her family’s support for the illness they said was “all in her head” (they were right, but not in the way they meant), and then to find a medication that would keep her stable. She was in and out of the hospital, struggled to pass her classes, and hurt and confused by the new label she wore: bipolar.

Struggling to Find God's Peace

As you might imagine, her faith took some hard hits. But what made it infinitely worse were the ignorant, asinine, and wholly unfounded judgments and advice she received from fellow Christians. 
One guy from our church claimed to have been bipolar until he prayed for deliverance. And while I didn’t doubt his story, it was his assertion that she just wasn’t praying hard enough for healing that made me want to sock him. A hospital chaplain flat-out blamed her, saying her walk with the Lord wasn’t strong enough. And there were people who said she just had to get over it, stop dwelling on it, or push through it, as though she was just being lazy, as though she didn’t agonize over this new reality and would have done anything to change it.

What is it about mental illness that the church has such a hard time dealing with?

What is it about needing medication to keep your brain chemistry stable that makes them think you must not be a real Christian? I’ve never heard someone tell a diabetic they shouldn’t need their insulin, and that they’d be healed if they just prayed harder. I’ve never seen someone tell a wheelchair-bound believer that it’s their own sin that keeps them in the seat. What is the difference?

When Jen was newly diagnosed, we went searching for resources to help her cope. We found a couple books written by people with bipolar, but not much, and nothing from a Christian perspective. I knew then that I wanted to write a book someday that talked about what it was like to be a Christian who struggled with mental illness, and how the people in her life could help her.

Giving a Voice to the Silent

Fast forward ten years: I’m a novelist now, with the ability to do just that, and so I’ve written Composing Amelia. But, as I experienced with Reinventing Rachel, my plans for the book and God’s plans for the book were not the same. And since God always wins in the end, Composing Amelia is not the book about bipolar that I expected it to be. 

At first I was frustrated: the Christian community desperately needs some help in this area, and I really wanted to be a part of bringing understanding to that community. But the more I think about it, the more fitting it is to me that Composing Amelia is about so many other things, and not just the issue of mental illness as it was in my first drafts, because people with bipolar disorder are not defined by their illness, nor is it the only thing they will struggle with in their lives.

But regardless of how the book does or doesn’t influence the Christian community’s understanding of mental illness, it has had a tremendous influence on me, because for the second time now God has bludgeoned me over the head and said, “Hey you, quit trying to save the world. That’s MY job, not yours.”

 I do tend to get a little starry-eyed at the thought of my books having an impact on people—the impact I want them to have. But as an author who writes for Christ, I need to remember that I am just the messenger. My job is to tell that message as skillfully as I can—not to decide what the message should be. I fought with Reinventing Rachel for the same reason, but apparently it takes me a while to learn my lesson. I think I’ve got it now, though.

I do hope readers out there who struggle with bipolar or know someone who does will be affirmed and encouraged by Composing Amelia. And I really hope they won’t be offended by the fact that I didn’t explore the many ancillary issues that I could have. Apparently this wasn’t the right book for that. But it was the right book for something. I know He has plans for it. And though they're not likely to be the plans I was expecting, I'm excited to see what they are.

Composing Amelia

Newlyweds Amelia and Marcus Sheffield are recent college graduates and city dwellers, 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:

View the video on YouTube here


  1. Christians tend to look down on any problems with the mind. When my marriage was falling apart I became depressed trying to deal with that issue, being in my senior year of college and a child who had just been hit and injured when run over by a car. My well meaning mother's reply to the counselor's prescribing medication was, "Christians don't get depressed." I think this is a common belief out there. I look forward to reading and recommending Composing Amelia.

  2. This was a book that touched me on so many levels. I've read all of Alison's book and this book is her BEST!!

    It's honest, compelling, hopeful and one I couldn't stop reading. The characters and the message stays with you long after you close the book. I highly recommend this book.

  3. I had a similar experience with my second novel. I had to drop an issue that was near and dear to my heart but didn't end up fitting the way I had hoped. I'm sure the book is stronger for it, though. And like you, I was trying to fix the church, so I'm sure it was for the best.

    Your book sounds fascinating. I'll be looking for it.

  4. I wish my to-be-read list wasn't so long! I'll add your book to it, but I'm not sure when I'll get to it.

    I can think of two possible reasons why so many Christians tend to condemn fellow Christians who struggle with depression and/or mental illness.

    1) Some of us truly HAVE been miraculously delivered from that by the touch of the Great Physician. But just as with any miraculous healing, the Lord doesn't choose to work that way for everyone. We the healed should realize that, and not condemn those who still suffer. I wasn't healed by my own strength, and the ill don't suffer because of their lack of strength. It's all God's doing.

    2) Mental illness scares people. We don't understand it. And it's comforting to think "it can't happen to me." If I can convince myself that a person's suffering is their own fault, I'm reassured that I can keep myself safe from similar suffering.

    Finally, I agree that we need to yield ourselves to the Lord's agenda (if that's what you want to call it) when we write, not build our own soapbox and climb up on it. He ALWAYS does a better job of it than we could possible devise. What could be more exciting than to let Him use us however He chooses and then stand back and see what He does?

    Thank you, Alison, for your sweet testimony.

  5. As someone who struggles with depression and relies on antidepressants to help manage the disorder, I'm grateful for the coming out of the closet moments that seem to be happening lately. I'm finding Christians, as a whole, wanting to be more authentic, and admitting to weaknesses. It runs in my family and while God hasn't delivered me completely from it, He has used it for my good. I think it's part of what makes me a good writer (I hope). That ability to feel so deeply, both good and bad.

    I'm glad you wrote on the subject, Allison. God bless you.

  6. Alison, all your books have touched me on the heart level. God chooses to deliver some people and to walk beside others through mental illness. But I'm so glad we're addressing the subject in fiction.

    And, Y, you have to sad this! I don't care when you do, you have to read it. :)

  7. Alison, thank you for having the courage to write the story that God gave you to write! My entire family, from my grandmother to my youngest daughter, struggle daily with depression and mental illness, and as I've told my daughters, it's a battle you fight every minute of every day until you draw your last breath.

    Nobody knows what it's like until they have to deal with it themselves.

  8. Allison, your comments about wanting to save the world did strike a chord. I have so often caught myself thinking two things in conjunction with writing.

    First, how much my writing will change the world.

    Second, how frightening that thought is.

    Like you, I need frequent reminders that saving the world isn't my job. It's God's job. All I have been given to do is speak the message.

    And that's something we all need to be reminded of.

  9. Allison, would you mind writing a guest post for me on this issue (and your book, of course. It sounds great and one that I will put on my list to read). Please contact me.

  10. Thanks for writing about mental illness, Alison. A woman in our church struggles with severe depression. It's been a difficult road realizing we cannot love her out of it. No matter how much we lay down our lives for her, she still has this disease, she's still in and out of the hospital, she still attempts suicide. It's been yet another lesson in letting go and letting God.
    Blessings on your writing, Alison.

  11. It's so encouraging to read these comments! Yvonne gave some good reasons why Christians can incorrectly judge others Christians w/depression or bipolar. I struggle with depression too and have two Christian friends with bipolar. I will definitely be reading this book and passing it on.

    This is something people need to talk about more. We shouldn't be afraid to be transparent about our weaknesses. God can use us (and books like this) to encourage others who are struggling.


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