For nearly 38 years Natasha Walker has fought every day to battle her feeling of guilt at trying to live her life while championing the case of her missing sister Katrice Lee.
Speaking to The News in her first detailed interview since military police made an arrest over the toddler’s disappearance, Natasha has said she finally realised she must deal with decades of turmoil by opening ‘Pandora’s box’.
Now 45, she was seven when Katrice vanished on her second birthday on November 28 in 1981 at a NAAFI supermarket in Germany, where her soldier father Richard Lee was stationed with the army.
The last few weeks, she admits, have been tough. Natasha, a HR adviser, can count only one day in the last fortnight she has not cried.
In a few short weeks she has gone from anxiously checking her phone constantly while military police dig and search at a home in Swindon, to waiting for a actress to plead guilty to impersonating Katrice online.
These developments, on top of a major dig in Germany last year that found animal bones unrelated to the case, have brought to the fore the internal battle she has on spending time focusing on her sister's case, and trying to liver her own life.
Now the first time in years Natasha, who married her husband Mike in 2018, is seeking help as her family, including mum Sharon, battle with the ‘torture’ of not knowing what happened to Katrice. ‘It’s okay not to be okay,’ she tells The News.
Speaking in Gosport where she lives, Natasha said: ‘It’s got to that point in time where I need something. I’m so worried about it opening up Pandora’s Box and not being able to get it all back in again - and then what am I left with in the end?
'You're fighting every day with your emotions, thinking about what could happen.
'For me the not knowing is the worst thing, and I think if Katrice had been abducted and murdered and her body found then we’d have had a grave to grieve.
‘But because we don’t know if she's dead or alive, we can’t complete any grieving process.
'We can't say goodbye, because we don’t have anything to say goodbye to.
‘I’m hoping that she's had a really happy life. In an ideal world it’s going to be a nice house, big car, great job, married, children. I’d just like for her to be really happy, to be treated really nicely, to have had a really fulfilling life.’
‘People think that’s really cold when you say “I want to know if she's dead or alive” but that’s literally it.
‘But then what comes with that if we find her and she's dead then that closes that chapter, we have her body and can lay her to rest.
'We've got a grave to grieve but then there’s a dotted line to that because we need to then get them (the person responsible).
‘It’s not as straight cut as finding the body and that’s it. My brain just goes like this with time. What if that, what if this, then that or that, and I think that’s why my brain just went “no more Tash, you’re totally done, you can’t do this anymore”.
‘I think now admitting I have a massive problem, and I wouldn’t have had that problem if this hadn't happened, I need to learn to deal with it, to put it in its right box.
‘Or at least be given coping mechanisms on how to manage it rather than trying to pack it into a couple of boxes, pressing down the lid and locking it up and not letting any of it out.
‘Then you get a horrific phone call and literally everything goes bang, and everything comes out.’
Now Natasha will focus on what positives she can achieve for Katrice, rather than spending each birthday sitting at home feeling guilty.
And that is why she will join around 20,000 people in taking part in the 10-mile Great South Run in Portsmouth on Sunday – all for charity Missing People.
‘It's something really positive. I'm doing something good for the right reasons.
'And at the same time it's raising awareness about Katrice.
'I'm expecting on Sunday to be really emotional about the whole thing.
'I've got to start doing positive things for Katrice's birthday rather than sitting at home and moping around thinking about what ifs, if I can try and do something positive then all the better.’
After completing the couch to 5K programme, running has become an escape for Natasha – especially when she is joined by her faithful three-year-old Australian Shepherd dog Wilf.
‘I don’t think about anything else, the life I’ve got or anything with Katrice. It gives me that release,’ she said. ‘I’ve felt quite emotional when I was running. Sunday was probably the first day I haven’t cried in about two weeks with everything else that’s been going on.’
When Natasha talks about ‘everything else’ she is referring to things that would make most people crumble.
Wirral-based actress Heidi Robinson admitted impersonating Katrice. Robinson, 40, sent a Facebook friend request from a profile mocked up as the missing tot, quickly followed by abusive messages.
It’s not the first time this has happened. One woman was jailed in 2014 for breaching a restraining order for impersonating Katrice online.
Since then Natasha has been plagued by more people claiming to be Katrice – but who refuse to speak with Operation Bute, the current Royal Military re-investigation into the disappearance.
Recently she has been sent the same image of a woman in Poland by several people. Others have bombarded her with 30 messages overnight.
Natasha said: ‘I have no patience anymore for the people who think they are Katrice, contact me, don’t go to the police and then hound me. I’m probably quite cold and horrible to them.’
Among all of this Natasha is getting to grips with her own life, including taking a college course to boost here career – at a firm she praises as supportive.
But every moment she dedicates to herself creates a feeling of guilt. ‘Just doing things I wouldn’t normally want to do. I felt like I was being punished. Then when you’ve got that you struggle with that guilt – with “oh god how can you think so horribly your sister is missing, how can you think about yourself?” That’s what I’ve struggled with.
‘But I’ve got great friends who have been really supportive.’