The Ugly Cry

  • Written by Andrea Goulet

I thought I was prepared for staying up for 24 hours straight. I drank plenty of water, limited my caffeine to avoid a crash, and did my best to pace my energy throughout the event. But there was one thing that I wasn’t prepared for: the ugly cry.

This year was my third CreateAthon, but last week was the first time that I stayed up for the entire 24 hours. As a mentor with CreateAthon at VCU, my role is to provide feedback and guidance to the students who are doing the work. Students are required to stay the full 24 hours, but mentors aren’t. In my first year, I had a corporate job. I stayed until 2 a.m. but had to go into the office the next day. Last year, I was planning on staying the entire time, but got sick so had to go home. This year, I was committed to staying to the end, no matter what.

Luckily, there was little drama to deter my mission. I started handing out t-shirts at 8 a.m., coordinating the 89 students and 34 mentors. We gathered together and snapped a group shot, but had to bring out the wide-angle lens because there were SO many more people than last year. I bounced around from group to group helping students stay on strategy. I knew what to expect.

Noon, lunch. 3 p.m., students’ first check in. 5 p.m., yoga. 6 p.m., dinner. All part and parcel of my regular CreateAthon routine. Around 9 p.m. there were noticeably fewer mentors than there had been at the start of the day. And, it was around this time that I started realizing that I was venturing into uncharted experiences.

I discovered that 2 a.m. is an amazing time to write a manifesto. For some reason, the quiet of the night helps to strip away inhibitions. Around 4 a.m. I helped console a sobbing student who felt her ideas were rejected by the team. My weariness washed away as I pointed out that she indeed had contributed, even if her work didn’t make the final cut. At 6 a.m. there was the final push to make sure every team was prepared for their presentation. A frenzied energy overtook me as I made sure that Is were dotted and Ts were crossed.

Then, with an anticipatory gulp, I realized that the time had come for the twelve non-profits to see the results of our efforts over the past 24-hours. Some mentors returned, and I tried not to appear jealous of their fresh clothes or shampooed hair. Representatives of the first non-profit to arrive, the New Community School, sat around the conference table and waited to see the work. Marie gave a flawless presentation, describing her team’s thought process that went into designing a new application packet. I was proud. Proud, as if she were my own daughter and had just scored a winning basket with seconds to spare. I took a breath and listened eagerly for the response.

“We love it.” The Executive Director said, quietly. “This will help us so much.”

Suddenly, as if bottled up through all the hours of ideation, a monster of emotion lurched from my stomach, crouched in my sinus cavity, and sprang with full force from my tear ducts. It was loud. And noticeable. I snorted. I snotted. I sniffled. And I promptly left the room.

“Oh,” Peyton, a veteran of over 15 CreateAthons, said. “You’ve never experienced the ugly cry, have you?” Nope. And as I stood in the hall attempting to regain my composure, a student was kind enough to snap a picture of me at the ugly cry peak. “You’ll want to remember this,” she said. “This is why we do CreateAthon.”

I’m not sure what overtook me, but I can theorize that the ugly cry is the perfect storm of not enough sleep, knowing you’ve done your absolute best work, and seeing first hand how your ideas will help make a difference in the world. It’s the ugly cry. No single tear. Just unbridled emotion in all its glory. And it’s this feeling that has me eager to do it all over again next year.