‘It took me time to accept and adapt to my disability, but I was never going to allow it to make me a victim’
To mark MS Awareness Week, Detective Constable Lee Ellis shares her experience of being diagnosed and living with multiple sclerosis, her life as a detective constable and her motivations for seeking leadership roles within the force.
I joined the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) in 2005 after spending a number of years as a police community support officer in central London. By 2016, I had already spent several years as a support officer to victims of serious sexual assaults before becoming a detective. I felt in a good place and enjoyed the responsibility of investigating serious crime and putting in what was needed to ensure the public had the right impression of the police. To this day, I still keep in contact with some of the people I have helped over the years.
However, come June 2016, I really started to feel unwell. I had this patchy numbness in my right forearm that I couldn’t shake. It got to a point where I was no longer confident in driving, and I went home sick. The patchy numbness developed into total paralysis of my right side, and I was exhausted. I went through various tests and returned to work in the autumn after successfully finding ways to ease my symptoms.
After a complex lumbar puncture and brain scans, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I have to admit, I had heard of the letters MS, but like the majority of people, that meant M&S rather than a medical condition. The day I found out I had MS was the day when I began to make complete sense to myself. All those times of tripping over air, kicking door frames, dropping things, having more drastic pain than I should for a particular injury, odd bouts of tiredness, and the mind blanks made complete sense.
I had so much to learn about the body I had been in for some 38 years. MS is a neurological condition that can be best described as my body attacking the nerves in my brain. For a reason that is yet to be established, the body causes damage to the coating of the nerves within the central nervous system. It results in the disruption of messages between my brain and any part of my body, causing me to be unable to walk, talk and function like the majority of people. Researchers believe that MS is caused by a combination of health, environmental and hereditary factors. But their work to find a cure continues.
The symptoms of MS can range from mild to severe depending on the version of the condition, the person, their lifestyle and environmental factors. I take a very proactive approach to my condition through diet and lifestyle, but there can be times when I’m lying on the sofa and it feels like I have a slab of concrete on top of me. On a good day, it feels like I’m wading through wet concrete. I have to find ways to manage my time and energy without taking a good day for granted.
The police officer in me is often in conflict with the condition I have. It’s taken me several years to adjust to the brain fog, fatigue and pain, but I find relief from the support of charities such as Overcoming MS, MS Trust, and the Kent MS Therapy Centre.
My MS prevented me from being deployed to a certain degree, but it allowed me to take more behind-the-scenes roles such as staff officer to the detective superintendent, Offender Management Data Review and Quality Assurance of Investigations. This allowed me to set standards and provide guidance to fellow officers whilst compiling evidence and data for the senior leadership team.
Due to being vulnerable to Covid, I, like many others with the condition, had no option but to work from home for 20 or so months. I climbed the walls, but soon adapted as I accepted that being at home was the safest place for me. I also found relief from my symptoms by such things as hugging the radiator, not being out in the cold, and being able to get up and crack on with a full day’s work.
While still working on my cases from home, I helped my supervisors with the data management that the police are measured on from local to central government. It further opened doors and my mind to the idea of promotion. All those years of procrastinating and doubting my now defective brain had been replaced by someone ready to develop into a stronger leader; to help others to deliver a high standard of service to the public, look after their own and colleagues’ wellbeing, and develop into strong confident police officers of the future.
Although the police service needs to remain fixed in its purpose, it does take its time to adapt to the society it serves. Because disability isn’t always visible, it often gets overlooked and I have occasionally interacted with people who are not as open minded as they should be. But there are so many others who see you for what you’re able to do, rather than what you’re not able to do.
The MPS has 30 support networks for a vast array of conditions from MS, dyslexia, cancer support and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. During the pandemic, I became the MPS lead on MS and a Federation representative.
Police Now (Frontline Leadership Programme) is the last piece of the puzzle for me.
A part of the Police Now mission is to increase diversity within the police to encourage a more representative service for the communities we serve. It comes at a time when the police service is making significant changes to address the attitudes and behaviours of a few. Police Now provides a structured development programme that helps find the right people to move the service in the right direction.
I have joined the Frontline Leadership Programme, which is offered across many of the police forces in England and Wales, to develop my confidence and to play my part in ensuring the public are provided with the service they deserve, and that colleagues have a sergeant with the knowledge and skills to support them.
Police Now also offers direct entry programmes for those looking to join the police service. It took me time to accept and adapt to my disability, but I was never going to allow it to make me a victim.
MS Awareness Week runs until May 1.
Detective Constable Lee Ellis joined the MPS in 2005 and was diagnosed with MS in 2016. She has since become the MS support network lead for the force and is now beginning her journey on Police Now’s Frontline Leadership Programme. This is a one-year development programme that prepares police officers with high leadership potential for promotion to leadership roles in frontline policing. The programme operates in partnership with the Home Office, College of Policing and police forces. It was launched last year and directly addresses the shortage of sergeants predicted by 2024. The Frontline Leadership Programme supports talented police officers from all backgrounds and career routes and aims to increase diversity and representation in senior operational ranks, by paying particular attention to the barriers often faced by officers from under-represented groups when going for promotion.