Charlie Kerr

Conversations on Trauma and Awakening: Charlie Kerr

Interviewed by Gabriella Evans
“There are definitely moments of clarity amid the shame, but it is a lifelong process.”

Charlie Kerr is a Métis musician, actor and writer.
He is lyricist/vocalist for the Vancouver alt-rock band Hotel Mira. 





How would you describe who are you, in three words?

Ahh this is the worst answer ever: Actor. Musician. Writer. I mean, that’s far from… whatever, ya that’s my answer.

How would those who love and respect you describe you?

Kind. Ambitious. Funny. It’s the stuff I pride myself on being. 

It sounds like you believe and like these things about yourself, though that wasn’t what first came to mind when you described who you are. 

There is a chance I regret everything I say in this interview. At a later date maybe none of it will sound or feel right to me, and that’s just how it is. I think I can comfortably say that I’ve never been very happy with the outcomes of previous interviews. I am perpetually hard on myself and in an interview capacity, like with my music, I am always thinking to myself, “I could do it so much better now. I know so much more.” I guess what I have to become comfortable with is accepting where I am in this exact moment. Expressing things honestly should be enough. I have a tendency to dissect things and destroy myself even when I know I have done my best with the information I have in each moment.

Isn’t acceptance the work? Thank you so much for your incredibly honest insight. Before we enter the territory of exploring suffering and any personal evolution born out of that, I am wondering: What helps you feel safest and most grounded? 

When I feel heard and when I feel understood I feel safe. When I feel as though I have all the room in the world to make mistakes and be exploratory I feel safe. Being able to lead with humanity and curiosity makes me feel safe, in contrast to my go-to which is to impress and people-please and do everything in my capacity to not be abandoned. Feeling truly safe has been hard to come by for me. 

Are there people, places or any other forums in which you have felt truly heard, understood and able to make mistakes? 

When me and my ex-girlfriend were hanging out that felt really safe. When I am with my counsellor it feels safe. When I am writing songs or really onto something creatively, either by myself or with someone else, it feels good. Feeling this way in my body is very new to me. In just the last three years I have become able to be witness to it, and there is an argument to be made that the feeling has only actually started happening for me at all in the last three years. 

With that in mind – that you have this potentially brand new capacity to feel safe in your body – I would like to invite you to speak a little bit about the darkness. First I’ll ask: What does trauma mean to you? How would you define it? 

It’s this relentless, all-consuming, lingering symptom of something that wasn’t supposed to happen. I think that’s the best way I can put it today. 

How has trauma contributed to your personal suffering? 

I, as many people do, blamed myself for things that were a lot more complicated than a personal screw-up. With a lot of these things, I had no fault in the matter, but the brain does what it needs to do to keep you going and might give you a narrative that protects you at the time but becomes less and less useful as time goes on. That is definitely my story. I became… ah fuck, I don’t know how to say this without it being a cliché… I became my own worst enemy. I’ve always had this philosophy that human beings are a great and redeemable force that deserve to be here and deserve second chances, but I don’t… actually, I have a history of not applying that to myself. I have felt removed from the equation and have felt like I have a separate criterion. I think that is tied to various traumatic things that have happened in my life. 

Sounds like things are shifting for you as far as your relationship to trauma and to yourself.

I’d argue that that’s the work that has to be done. There are definitely moments of clarity amid the shame, but it is a lifelong process. We can’t think our way out of this stuff. My heart goes out to everybody whose minds and bodies are arrested by trauma. Especially with the way that men in our society are taught to not express things emotionally or intuitively. We are told it is all supposed to be logical. My heart goes out to anybody who really needs help and hasn’t learned how to approach their own suffering with a strategy other than thinking.  

I agree that we cannot logic our way out of trauma. So I don’t know if this next questions will even make sense. I am wondering if you have any words, but maybe it’s not words maybe it’s another offering – a piece of music or a piece of art. What would you like to offer to those who are stuck in suffering that is similar to what you have been through in the past?

I would like to pass on the message that you have ownership of your pain. You have ownership of your story. There is an odd, well-meaning strategy of – when it comes to our own problems and our own pain – telling ourselves “at least I am not starving” or “at least I am able-bodied.” Gratitude and perspective are helpful, but we can also completely bypass our humanity by ignoring our own feelings. I was really addicted to dismissing everything by telling myself things like “it’s not that bad” or by minimizing the facts. If I met someone like me I don’t actually know if I would be able to get through to them. No one can change the way that you feel. I hope I don’t contradict that later. I’m sure I’m bound to, but that is my main takeaway. A lot of the sweetest, most well-meaning people I know wind up in incredible amounts of pain because they don’t see their pain as something that deserves attention. How could it be worth anything if they’re the one who is feeling it? For example, if you get bullied in a solely verbally abusive manner you might think to yourself, “It’s not that bad. No one is punching me in the face or shoving me in a locker,” but I’d argue that getting punched or shoved is more direct and less confusing than some other form of pain. The more nuanced versions of pain can lead to a lot more unchecked suffering because you end up beating yourself up for your own trauma. 

I know what helped me heal, but I also know that when we are caught in self-destructive loops we can be incredibly hard to reach. In our society, so many incredibly harmful and shitty things are normalized, so it’s hard to feel like we have ownership of our stories or our traumas. Matters can also become so much worse if we do go to someone for support with something vulnerable and they end up agreeing that our trauma is not important. The whole thing is like a glass figurine. It is so fucking fragile when we are in that state, and we don’t necessarily even know how fragile of a state we’re in or what we are going to take on. 

Shame is entirely useless. It is entirely fucking useless.

What is the alternative? Shame is often so naturally where are bodies and minds end up post-trauma. 

It has to be acceptance. From there we can adjust and become the best person possible with what we are given. There is a saying: guilt is what you have done and shame is what you are. I see guilt as being fine. For example, if our actions weren’t aligned with values, it makes sense to be accountable, feel guilty and change course. Shame though is the idea that you don’t deserve to be here. The shame and stigma of of survivordom are so mercurial and vast it is hard to get your head around.

What helps you with acceptance? How does creativity tie in, if it does? 

Going to my counsellor and having people around me that support me has helped. Having good boundaries is incredibly helpful also. I have also had the weird and fortunate experience of digging deep into something that I am ashamed of, turning it into a song and having thousands of people sign off on it and let me know that my humanity is appreciated. This is an odd privilege and it is hard to understand the repercussions of it. I am grateful for it, but it is also so strange. I think on some level I have a horrible fear of being misunderstood because for so long I felt so alien. I know that might sound self-pitying, but it is the truth so I don’t care. I am lucky to have this really cool project where I can express myself and share with this amazing community of people who appreciate and accept my voice. I am also looking for things that are more sustainable and less at the mercy of strangers. There has to be something that goes on that is detached from the external validation of what I am doing as an artist. I try to understand the implications of how that is limited and I can’t count on it the way I can count on therapy and self-reflection and acceptance and I don’t know… all these fucking buzz words. There is no material solution for a spiritual problem. 

What is the most beautiful thing to have been born out of your own suffering? 

I never feel out of my depth when having a conversation with anyone.

Before we had this conversation, I was told that there is much to be learned in the way you vocalize and that your messages are powerful and eloquently delivered. 

I painstakingly do my best at that... oh man, I am going to start crying. It is so nice to hear that my message isn’t being lost when I speak about something that I am so passionate about. 

Are there any last words you would like to put out there before we take some breaths and bring closure to this conversation? 

Yes. I think there is a trauma in itself in the various marginalized communities that have been gaslit. It is incredibly important to understand that there are a lot of horrible systems in place that get to continue because of discrimination. The older I get, the more I feel as though the only thing I am sure of is that those with privilege should be helping those with less privilege. I want to get at just how hard I think it is to exist in our society. There is so much that we don't chose that can exacerbate trauma – socioeconomics, gender, sexual orientation, race. There is so much to do with the mental health conversation that is far from just brain chemistry. Living in a cruel, racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ablest world could make anyone feel entirely hopeless. Not to take anything away from anybody who has a specific condition. I have diagnosed specific conditions. But I also want to invite those who have maybe not formally been diagnosed to look inward at their pain and notice if the history of their life or what they were taught to believe is adding to their suffering and needs repairing. This can be done within ourselves and within community, not just from a super technical mental health standpoint. 

There is so much to cover with this topic and it’s hard to not feel like we only just scratched the surface every time these conversations are had. I hope that there is something that is concise and sound-bitey enough in here.