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The iPhone Notes app is where all my darkest secrets live – particularly during lockdown

As England heads into a second lockdown, Olivia Petter reflects on her best coping mechanism and asks why writing is so crucial

Saturday 07 November 2020 09:53 GMT
(Rex Features)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


One of my biggest fears is that someone will steal my phone. It’s not because I’m worried about a stranger exploiting my data, calling all my contacts, or that I can’t afford to buy a new one (although I can’t), it’s because I don’t want to lose my notes. Or should I say, Notes.

Notes is a note-taking app that comes pre-installed on every Apple iPhone. Essentially, it is nothing more than a slave to practicality – a blank space just to write that doesn’t need to be uploaded, shared, liked or validated by other people. A place to store reminders, shopping lists, and other notations not required to be in full or coherent sentences. But since lockdown began, these digitised scraps of paper have become my most intimate space. I’d rather someone trawled through my photos and DMs than Notes.

My Notes app is where I store my deepest and most sporadic thoughts. There are the drunken epiphanies (“f*** boys are just boys who f***”), the bizarre lists (“wine, socks, shampoo, Pret”) and the imperative sentences I have absolutely no explanation for (“be more third gear”).

Then there are the other kind of notes. The ones I’m not prepared to share with anyone. They’re the texts I’ve never sent, the goals I’m not sure I have, and the secrets I’ve never told anyone. It’s a compendium that has become all the more sacred to me in lockdown.

Like so many others, the pandemic has had a seismic impact on my emotional and mental wellbeing. There have been curve balls in every corner of my life, and each one has been difficult to digest. But no matter how much time I spend in therapy, how many runs I go on, or how many meditation apps I download, nothing has helped me more than writing it all down in my Notes.

I can do it anywhere – Notes don’t need the internet, Wifi or even signal. I can write them on the tube, when a song reminds me of someone I miss. In the kitchen, when a housemate does something that makes me smile. And in my bedroom, when a late-night conversation feels unfinished. Writing this stuff down, whether it’s contextualised or not, has become my go-to pandemic survival tactic.

Writing this stuff down, whether it’s contextualised or not, has become my go-to pandemic survival tactic

It’s not just writing about the hard times that help, either. Documenting the silly stuff matters too. I now have an entire page dedicated to documenting nonsensical things my mother says. For example: “The coin swings both ways”. And, as we no longer are able to make plans or enjoy the fullness of everything life has to offer, I take small pleasure in looking back at ridiculously long and detailed to-do lists in the run-up to past holidays: “Get cash out, shave legs, buy gnocchi, digestive tea”.

Of course, as a writer, I can’t help but subscribe to the Nora Ephron-approved notion that “everything is copy”. And yes, I’d be lying if there wasn’t a part of me that thinks the reason I’ve become so tied to my Notes is because I hope to someday harvest them for something else. But even if I don’t, there remains great pleasure in the simple act of writing - and reading - one’s internal monologue.

Psychologically, this all makes a lot of sense. “Writing is a way to express what we’re thinking and feeling in a safe space,” explains chartered clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd. “When you’ve got a lot in your mind, writing down your thoughts is a way to process – you can look at them, sort through them and it can help you to make sense of how you’re feeling.” Given that most of us keep our phones, rather than, say, pen and paper, on us at all times, it’s only natural that we’d use them to document our thoughts in real time. “Most phones have a password, so it can feel more private too,” Dr Hibberd adds.

Reading back through your old notes might sound narcissistic and tantamount to scrolling through your own Instagram profile, but it can offer major psychological benefits, such as personal development. “It can be a way of helping you understand yourself better,” Dr Hibberd explains. “This allows you to tackle areas of difficulty and the changes you wish to make, as well as helping you to recognise what’s going well and your part in it so you get to know yourself better and increase self-awareness.”

Of course, what is written in Notes is sometimes shared – it is a favoured way of celebrities sharing statements too long for the character limits of social media. In the infamous Wagatha Christie row between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy, Rooney’s “evidence” was shared by way of Notes. For the rest of us, it works well for drafting texts you might be hesitant to send. “You can then think if you want to send it once you feel calmer and are not in the heat of the emotion,” says Dr Hibberd. “Often writing it is enough and it is then something you can let go of. Taking it out of your head and putting it on the paper is a way to let go of it rather than leaving it spinning round and ruminating in your mind.”

It can be a way of helping you understand yourself better

Dr Jessamy Hibberd

Gregory Fitzgibbon, chartered psychologist, says notes are just an extension of the age-old human desire to keep records. “[It] is simply a much easier way of journal-writing,” he says. Particularly during lockdown when we have a lot of otherwise “dead time” like when we are standing in a queue at the supermarket. “But basic human psychology is much the same now as it has always been, and we know that writing crystallises thoughts. It’s an emotional hygiene practice,” he adds.

If there was ever a time to practise emotional hygiene, it’s now. On Thursday, England entered its second lockdown of the year. Not only will this take a financial toll, it will take a psychological one, too, with charities warning that the restrictions could have a major impact on people’s mental health. But how the government chooses to handle the pandemic is entirely out of our control; writing is a way we can regain it. “It helps us to feel like we have control over whatever is on our minds,” Fitzgibbon says. “In that sense, it is self-therapy.” Here’s hoping my housemates don’t steal my phone in lockdown.

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