Nicole Pacapelli: My Battle With My Mental Health and Loving Who I Am

Nicole Pacapelli currently coaches women’s soccer at Binghamton University. She previously coached at The University of Richmond, Queens College, and her alma mater, the University of New Haven. Pacapelli served as a two year captain while playing at New Haven and earned various accolades as a standout midfielder. After college and before coaching, she continued her playing career with the Connecticut Football Club (CFC) Passion of the WPSL. Pacapelli shared her mental health story via social media and through the America East Conference. She says, “I find the more student athletes can see coaches who have struggled, the better they can connect.” Her original post can be found here.

Pacapelli joined the Binghamton coaching staff in February 2020.

Meeting Ivy Watts

I want to thank a former University of New Haven Student-Athlete peer of mine, Ivy Watts, for giving me the confidence and inspiring me to share my own personal story. A story I never thought I would have, never mind ever want to share.

Ivy and I did not cross paths much in college, she was a track star and I played on the soccer team, but I knew who she was because she was a great athlete. She was always training hard and smiling around the athletic facilities on North Campus. Ivy has made it a mission to be a mental health empowerment speaker and advocate; she wants others to know that it is OK to not be OK. This past summer, Ivy and I spoke on the phone for the first time, we shared an extremely resonating conversation and a deep understanding of what goes on in our mind day in and day out together as we battle our mental health.

To this day, that connection, that feeling of being understood exactly by another person who can relate to the same feeling has made a tremendous impact on me. My hope is that someone reads this and feels comfortable to reach out to me.

Ivy Watts, a former student athlete at the University of New Haven, now tours the country as a mental health empowerment speaker and runs the blog, Beautifully Simply You. Watts inspired Pacapelli to share her story of struggles with mental health.

My Battle With My Mental Health and Loving Who I Am

Watching our world get turned upside down, seeing the shutdown of everyday life, and feeling the loneliness of isolation; mental health is a prominent concern. A concern that some people might have never even felt or had before, but the concern is very real.

I never thought I would want to write this, but I think it is time to share my story in hopes to shed some light. Even leaders in this world, the people that we rely on to be strong and positive, struggle.

The picture below is me, Nicole Pacapelli, a die hard “Westie” from West Haven, Connecticut. An extremely proud graduate of the University of New Haven with a Bachelors Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics and an M.B.A. concentrated in Sports Management, as well as a former Captain of the Women’s Soccer Team. You will usually find me with a big smile, looking to make people happy, brighten everyone’s day. I also have the most outstanding family. They are happy, healthy, and full of love. They support me more than you could ever believe; it is like I have the perfect life.

Pacapelli coaching for Queens College.

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE WRONG?

I asked myself the same question everyday. What is wrong? Why is it so hard for me to be happy? I felt ungrateful, selfish, and embarrassed. It didn’t make sense and I truly did not know the answer.

This is a common picture of what mental health struggles look like. My perfection was part of the problem.

There is no perfect life. There is only the exhaustion and constant disappointment of trying to be perfect. Comparing yourself to the best is harmful. It is paining to the heart and the brain. Rather than always trying to be the best, I now strive to be the best version of myself. I am my only competition.

So Here We Are….

Four years ago, in the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to be a Head Coach right out of being a graduate assistant in Queens, New York. As excited as I was to begin a career doing what I love, change for me has always been mentally traumatic. As mentioned, I grew up a die hard West Haven Blue Devil. I attempted to go away to college, but needless to say, I came back home to my comfort zone at the University of New Haven. I played soccer there for a coach whom I had played for growing up (another comfort) and took the six year plan. This bought me time for two extra years to get my Masters Degree as my coach’s graduate assistant, so I once again didn’t have to leave my comfort zone. But, those extra two years flew by and I eventually had to leave the nest. This time I couldn’t shake it, I could not move on and I could not understand why. It is normal to be sad through change, but this time it was not normal. I later realized I was continuously chasing a happiness that wasn’t real and it broke my heart.

I learned that happiness is enjoying the present moment, it is enjoying the process.

It Is NOT A Result of Success and Failure.

A few months into my new job, I asked my coach, who I was lucky to have see me through this, if I could talk to her. I told her how sad I was all the time. I felt that nothing could make me happy and I did not know why. As I rambled on trying to decipher my feelings, I realized that I idealized perfection. I made up perfect scenarios and perfect situations, all with expectations so high that they were impossible to achieve. I thought being the best was what always made me happy. I was very wrong. With those perfectionist thoughts, I made myself anxious and depressed. I gave myself the feelings of never being satisfied, never feeling worthy, and never feeling that I was good enough. Thankfully, my coach led me in the right direction, speaking to professionals. On the outside, I was a twenty-four year old kid, living in New York, running my own college soccer program. I was high-functioning, well put together, but also extremely obsessive and controlling over things out of my control. My mind would never stop thinking about them. I battled and believed the stories my mind told me; no one likes you, no one cares, overthink this look, text, joke, exclamation mark. The infamous line of “are you mad at me?” was a daily question asked. I made myself crazy with my own insecurities and I eventually lost control. Your mind is so powerful, and when you don’t train it properly, it can fill in the gaps of unanswered questions or uncertainty with negativity. I thought about things that I should not be thinking about. I ruined friendships and pushed away some of the people I loved the most.

WHY WAS THIS HAPPENING?

WHAT IS THIS?

WHY IS IT STARTING NOW?

Pacapelli competing for The University of New Haven circa 2013.

Generalized Anxiety & Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
My Causes: Perfectionism, Fear Of Failure, Lack Of Control

Looking back to being a little kid, and now knowing what anxiety is, I can see that I always struggled. I would give myself stomachaches and tight throats before going to school. I remember crying for my mom when she dropped me off at dance class because I was making myself feel sick. I remember being worried on field trips and sleepovers, having to go home or leave. My mom would always tell me it was in my head and it took me until now to understand that it actually was.

Anxiety is living in your head, everyone has mental health in someway but it is learning how to control your own that makes all the difference.

My New Haven experience was second to none. I loved playing college soccer, and being a part of a team, but looking back now, it was also anxiety free, or so I had thought. I just knew I felt happy! What I did not know is that my anxious feelings were only just hidden by my “positively” obsessive thoughts and the approval of others. OCD tricks your brain into feeling as though you are in control. You can bet my color coordinating skills were up to par and my lines were always impeccably straight. Nothing wrong with that until it consumes you. In college, whenever my mind would start to race, and I didn’t feel good enough, I had immediate gratification from my coach, who was very good at coaching me and would tell me otherwise. I put my whole heart into that program because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to feel important, but I let it become too much of my identity. I, like many others, defined myself solely through the identity of being a student-athlete. My opinion of myself and my own happiness was just that. It relied on the need to know that I was good enough for others and that I was making other people’s lives better. And, I needed constant reassurance of it to put my anxiety at ease. But, I still lived life in black and white. I struggled to see any gray area in between; it was always one way or the other. I turned my obsessive thoughts into strategic eating and training; striving to be the fittest I could possibly be. This was masked as a good thing because I was (once again) trying to be the best. When those few years were over, I was hit on the head hard with figuring out how to control my own thoughts and how to love myself without the approval of who I used to be.

Pacapelli coaching for Queens College against her former coach and alma mater, University of New Haven.

Here we are now five years later, I quit my full-time head coaching job, was in a full-blown depression for the five-months thereafter, rarely getting out of bed. I was back home, but home was not home anymore. I went to New Haven everyday. I know I worried my parents and those around me even more. I felt I could not get another job and I was losing this battle.

Without putting much thought into it, I took an unpaid volunteer assistant position at the University of Richmond, because that was what was put in front of me. I packed my things, and within two weeks, moved to Virginia for a year. I lived with some extended family who I am so lucky to have. It was almost too good to be true, a huge coincidence. Virginia was the hardest move I ever made, but it changed my life. I was put in an environment where I was not thinking about home or the people there because I was so far away. Being on my own in Virginia allowed me to completely pull myself out of my old situation and immerse myself into a new life. It allowed me to work on understanding myself everyday, as I stopped being so consumed with what everyone else at home was doing and what I was missing out on. I lived my new life.

At Richmond, I worked for someone who ran a program with the strongest, most positive culture I have ever seen. The emphasis on building character skills was discussed every single day. I learned about mindfulness, being in the present, and focusing time and energy only on what you can control. The reality is that you cannot change the past, so why obsess over it? IT IS DEFINITELY EASIER SAID THAN DONE, especially for an obsessive personality. In this environment, I gained deeper knowledge about my emotional responses and how to be disciplined versus acting off of these emotions. I was able to better understand myself and my anxiety. I now feel and know when my anxiety is triggered. I know when it is bad, I know the physical symptoms when my heart and thoughts are racing. I also know that I will always have anxiety and that’s OK because I am in control of it. It is a conscious effort to be in control.

Pacapelli coaching at The University of Richmond.

I learned what it takes to not fixate on having to be the best, but to focus simply on being the best version of myself everyday.

I am a college soccer coach. It is my job to teach life skills, talk about character, build people up, to be positive and resilient. It is my job to lead and empower others, to make an impact. People look to us as coaches to act in that way, but some days coaches actually need coaches and that’s OK too. This experience has changed my outlook as a coach. My vulnerability allows me to relate to others and make an impact. I am far from perfect. I have learned how to live life above a line that I don’t ever want to fall below again. I never thought that I would be someone who battles their mental health, but my experience put the reality of it into perspective and I know it is real. It is very real, not just for me, but for almost everyone out there, especially student-athletes and especially those unfamiliar with mental illness as we battle this COVID -19 crisis. The lack of control in our current situation can be extremely overbearing. Everyone copes in a different way, but the best thing you can do is support each other. The people who seem to be the happiest and look like they have it all together are the people who often need help the most. No one should ever do it alone.

IT IS OK TO NOT BE OK

IT IS OK TO TALK ABOUT IT

BE THE BEST VERSION OF YOU

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: 1-800-273-8255

NCAA MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES