Last week, on the first night I stayed at the Rio in Las Vegas for the RT Booklovers’ convention, I decided to invite a couple of fellow attendees to my room so we could pool our funds for room service pizza and an on-demand movie. I’d never met either of these women before, so I was nervous and distracted. Two-thirds dressed, practicing social niceities in my head, I stepped out into the hall to put out a bag of trash. And of course, I let the door close behind me.
I stood paralyzed with dismay in the hallway for a good fifteen seconds, nothing on me but a T-shirt and sweatpants (not even pockets). Then I practiced some Radical Acceptance and padded barefoot down the hall toward the elevators. Down eight floors I went, then down a long hall into a crowded casino to find security, grateful I’d decided to get a pedicure before the convention, at least. This is Vegas, I told myself. They’ve seen worse.
My fun was just beginning. Security said they’d send someone to my room, told me to meet him there. My guests arrived first, and so we got to stand in the hallway making small talk as though it were perfectly normal to see a colleague’s toes when you meet her for the first time. When the security guy arrived, we got to the truly complicated part: I was registered at the hotel as Mishell Baker, but that’s not what it says on my driver’s license. I had to show a credit card with both names on it, then unlock the iPad on the desk with my thumbprint, then show him my Twitter account with both my face and the name Mishell Baker on it, before he was satisfied enough to let me have the room.
I appreciated his thoroughness, but it did set off some of my ongoing discomfort about my two names, and how they sometimes work against my growing sense of coherent identity. This brings me to a favorite topic of mine: integrity.
For me (as for many people with BPD), integrity isn’t a moral high horse; it’s crucial to sanity. I cannot “live two lives” without creating dangerous fault lines in my mental health. I must be the same person in every situation, with obvious superficial adjustments (we use different slang when texting our millennial friends than we do when talking to Grandma in Texas).
I can have two names, even assign different tasks to them (the woman on my driver’s license pays bills and gets her teeth drilled while Mishell Baker makes friends, learns Russian, and goes to conventions), so long as those two names, those two sets of tasks, add up to one coherent life. The goal of integrity, as I see it, is to live a life so true to itself that if someone were to turn it all inside out and display it to the world at large, you’d still be all right. You might feel gut-gouging embarrassment (not everyone wants kinks or nerdy hobbies to become a matter of public record), but you would not be ruined. You would not lose your friends, your family, or your job.
How, in a practical sense, can you know if you are living with full integrity? I’ve given this a lot of thought, and here is the answer I came up with: if you want a fully integrated existence, do not allow people with significantly divergent values to hold load-bearing positions in your life. That doesn’t mean you can’t befriend them, but ideally, do not take large amounts of money from them, and do not arrange your life so that their absence (if they found out the truth) would shatter you.
If integrity is your goal, not only should you avoid practical entanglements (employment, housing, other basic life needs) with people who would be horrified by the truth of you, but you should also beware of deep emotional entanglements with these people. If your self-esteem and happiness rely on the regard of someone who would reject and revile you if they knew the truth, then this will slowly eat away at even the strongest soul. Ask yourself if this person could accept you as you are, and if not, why not? Is this person misguided, or are you? If you fully trust and respect this person, perhaps the things that horrify her are actually horrifying, and you should reconsider. If you do not fully respect and trust this person, why are you allowing her such a strong emotional hold on you? Would you not be better off transferring some of that social energy to people whose values make sense to you?
Integrity, as I see it, is not about adhering to any particular moral code. There is almost nothing you can do without being seen as a “sinner” by someone, so “doing the right thing” amounts to abiding by your deepest-held personal code, even when it is difficult. If your code varies hugely from any others you see around you, you may wish to reexamine it, because general notions of morality do not tend to arise at random, and personal instincts can be very, very wrong. But there are some cases in which a generally accepted idea of “wrongness” comes from fleeting trends or obsolete superstitions, so it’s wise to listen to your gut and your rational faculty at least a bit.
If you aim for integrity, keep a close watch on the number of secrets you hold. Examine your secrets the way you’d go through your fridge to see what’s growing blue fuzz. Keep secrets to protect others, not yourself. There are times when you must keep your mouth shut to avoid doing harm (it’s not your call, for example, whether to “out” someone to his mother), but if you routinely find yourself keeping parts of your own life secret out of fear of consequences for yourself, this is a good sign that you are not living in line with your own values.
Arriving at complete integrity is not easy. As a child, you don’t have much choice in who holds your life in their hands. Sometimes even as an adult you are so deeply entangled with people who don’t share your values that it is a complex process to extricate yourself. Sometimes you have to take work where you can find it, or starve. But if you are not at least taking steps toward building your life’s foundation upon people who share your values, then you have deprioritized integrity. Does that make you a bad person? No. But it will certainly make your life complicated, tense, and high-maintenance.
Integrity, by its nature, is not a show you put on for others; it’s for you.
So far, Mishell and the woman on my driver’s license have a harmonious partnership and are two parts of a coherent whole. Neither is hiding anything from the other; the secrets I keep are kept to protect others I care about, not to protect myself. But I’ve got my eye on both those ladies, and if they ever start to disagree, we’re all going to have to sit down and have a little talk.