As Zach Carr leaned back in his office chair next to his diplomas and Marvel action figures, his smile made one thing clear: his dog days were over.
For more than a decade, the communication professor and UB alum’s ego swam in a pool of anger. But today, he has finally found his inner peace. His deadliest weapon in combating the monsters in his head?
“Muay thai [has] allowed me to merge the darker aspects of my life — my anger, depression, anxiety — and merge it with the good parts of me so I can look at them both and say, ‘This is Zach,’” Carr said in an interview with The Spectrum.
For Carr, the journey to serenity has been long and winding.
Fresh out of his teenage years, Carr attended classes at Concordia College and used his taekwondo background to develop skills in muay thai and krav maga. While in college, Carr and his friends developed their own fight club known as “Roc Club” to practice their skills.
But he says his relationship with martial arts quickly became unhealthy when his mind was poisoned by rage and heartbreak after he found out his father had been sexually abusing his sister.
Anxiety and depression took the wheel and drove Carr to some of the darkest days of his life. He coped with the news the best he could, but at the end of the day the only way to silence his pain was to physically release his emotions — even if it meant using street fighting as an outlet.
“I was just mad at my father, who I haven’t talked to in like 10 years, but I didn’t know what to do,” Carr said. “I thought that hitting people and things was the best way to go in some ways. I would use fighting as the medication. Nothing can be used like that, especially not fighting. That’s when people get hurt.”
Carr was able to gain some control by working with trainers and finding healthier ways of coping with his triggers. He began participating in amateur bouts with hopes of becoming a pro-striker, before a torn ACL in 2010 ripped apart his dreams of going pro.
Yet the injury impacted him more than just physically.
Muay thai and striking had become Carr’s addiction; it was his way of controlling the monsters in his head. Without his self-prescribed serotonin boosters, he fell into a pit of quicksand and sank deeper with every breath he took.
He found himself right back at square one.
“I was such a mess that my physical self was not there. That’s when everything kind of hit rock bottom for me,” Carr said. “I was drowning.”
It was that experience that influenced the Buffalo native to move back home to work on his mental health and earn his bachelor’s degree. Through a combination of therapy, counseling and muay thai training, he was finally able to guide his mind down the right path.
Carr credits his personal trainer, Shawn McDonough, from Training Edge in Williamsville, for helping him learn how to take the wheel and control his feelings.
“It’s a language that allows me to physically outlet all the emotions I have,” Carr said about fighting. “Talking is great, but when you’re doing a muay thai session you can yell and you can scream, you can physically exert these emotions. I’ve never had anything like that.”
Today, Carr still goes to the gym to train and keep his life balanced. Whether it’s AC/DC, Tupac or Biggie, he cranks up the music and hits the pads to defeat his demons.
Carr’s comfortability with the adrenaline rush that fighting brings him has helped him grow as an educator. He uses his fighting techniques to remain zen when he is face-to-face with his social anxiety before lectures. Carr says his anxiety makes him worry about his performance in the classroom, but his colleagues and students say they are drawn to his friendly aura and open personality.
“I’ve heard vicariously, through his students, how much they enjoy, learn and look forward to taking his classes and talking to him during office hours,” Carr’s childhood friend and fellow UB communication professor Zachary Glowacki said. “I think we honestly need more of that in academia (not just UB but other universities), because we may be so focused on making sure the students understand class material, but may overlook the actual human approach to teaching and guiding students through life.”
Glowacki and Carr grew up on the same street and bonded through sports — a passion they still share to this day. The two educators play in a kickball league to escape reality and fool around like kids. But at the end of the day, they both consider it to be a blessing to have someone they know and trust at work.
“We have a relationship I know not many people have in this environment and it’s nice to be able to take our ‘masks’ off of academia and just be humans and friends with each other,” Glowacki said.
Kylie Brosnan, a junior communication major, has taken a few courses with Carr and is now a teaching assistant for his introductory class, COM 101. Brosnan credits Carr for helping make her academic college experience fulfilling, and she especially appreciates his encouraging words of advice when it comes to her goals and decisions.
“Too often professors aren’t willing to empathize with their students or try to understand what they’re going through,” Brosnan said. “Zach is always willing to listen to his students and be accommodating.”
Carr’s own journey through his bouts of mental illness has guided him to be a helping hand for others. He encourages people to find their “thing” that allows them to escape — whether that’s music, sports or arts — and he encourages people to open up more in order to tear down the wall of stigma society has built up.
“The worst advice I have ever gotten was to hide the dark parts of yourself,” Carr said. “We’re taught to fragment ourselves — the public self, the happy self and the real, unhappy self behind closed doors. What I’ve learned through muay thai and my own struggle is to not treat them as separate things. Merge everything together and become a whole person.”
Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor at The Spectrum. She is studying communications with the hopes of being a sideline reporter. In her spare time, she can be found in the gym, watching football or vibing to Mac Miller. Kayla is on Twitter @kaylasterner.