Cheryl Burke is three years sober after years as a “functioning drunk.”
The Dancing With the Stars pro, 37, opened up about her addiction to Elizabeth Vargas on her Heart of the Matter podcast. Burke said childhood trauma led to a string of abusive relationships and later years of using alcohol to numb her feelings and cope with social anxiety.
“I’m definitely an alcoholic and addict. Absolutely. Yes. 100 percent,” Burke told the veteran newswoman, who’s also in recovery.
Burke said she “didn’t start drinking till I was 21,” when she moved to Los Angeles to do DWTS. The self-described “introvert” said suddenly doing red carpets and navigating fame dredged up insecurities, like wondering if people were only talking to her because she was on TV. The constant analysis — “my brain was so crazy” — was soothed with alcohol. She started partying and it quickly became a seven night a week thing.
“I was a ballroom-by-day type girl and then party- or club-goer at night — for 10 years in a row,” she said.
While she had tremendous success on the show, winning the mirror ball trophy with Drew Lachey and Emmitt Smith, during that time, she was “super mean to myself,” leading to more and more drinking. Her mentality with booze was “all or nothing,” saying, “This is how I would bully my friends when I would drink with them, like, ‘Oh, you’re going home? No. Drink more.'”
As her drinking increased, she would try to set limits with herself — whether it was not to drink alone or only drink after 5 p.m. — but she could never stick to them. Drinking so much all the time, her tolerance was so high that “nothing got me drunk. I was a functioning drunk for sure.”
What she came to realize is that, “I was drinking because I was numbing — and we all know that that’s a scary place… It was survival mode constantly, seven days a week for me.”
She said she would “never take responsibility” for her drinking. She said anyone trying to help made her suspicious. “I had this saying: ‘I don’t trust people that are sober… There’s obviously some demons that they’re living.’ I was so ignorant to the fact that everything that I thought was weak is actually the most courageous thing you can possibly do.”
Burke said she never “really crashed and burned,” as in — had one horrible alcoholic moment that forced her into treatment. “To me crashing and burning is that feeling of just emptiness, of feeling there’s no purpose,” she said. “I felt disgusting. There was nothing there. I had no identity.”
She shared low points, including being interviewed by Diane Sawyer after a night of partying for the Oscars.
“I definitely reeked,” she said of the encounter. “Ever since then… The shame started to slowly [seep in]. Because obviously I respect Diane Sawyer. That’s the last thing [I wanted].”
Burke had a lot of childhood trauma she was carrying. As she’s previously shared, she was sexually abused as a child. She’s also a child of divorce, her parents split when she was 2, and had a complicated relationship with her father. Stephen Burke, who was also an alcoholic, died in 2018.
“I had this really weird friendship with my real dad from when I was a kid,” she said. “[I] always felt that weird feeling of abandonment… I put him up on this pedestal and he always fricking disappointed me… He was this man that I could never feel loved by. And that was a weird addiction in itself.”
Burke felt that led to “being attracted to men that were not committed — that had dark pasts and that were abusive.” She said she had “back to back physical and mental abusive relationships” prior to moving to L.A.
When Stephen, a strip club owner, was on his deathbed, she traveled to see him along with then-fiancé Matthew Lawrence. She recalled how her dying dad was in his hospital bed drinking Jack Daniels on ice, which was eye-opening.
“I knew that if I didn’t make a promise to myself to stop drinking that I was going to fall down the rabbit hole … I would crash and burn,” she said.
Burke decided not to tell anyone, even Lawrence, whom she married in 2019, that she was going to quit drinking, to allay any pressure. “Because back then, there was no way I went one day without even having a couple of vodka sodas and lime,” she admitted.
However, when she returned from Thailand, any time she had even a little alcohol, she would have a “full on allergic reaction.” Her face would get red and she’d break out in hives. “Obviously subconsciously something [happened and my body] was suddenly rejecting all this poison after drowning with it for so many years.”
She also had an allergic reaction at her engagement party, which became the last time she ever had a drink.
She said she broke down and had one drink to celebrate — and her body rejected it.
“I took one fireball shot and I felt so angry,” to slip and be drinking again, “and broke out into hives. Then I just quit that night of our engagement party.”
She added, “Thank God for the hives because I don’t know if I’d be here today.”
Burke said being sober has showed her what was missing inside, including “self respect, self love, self esteem, and just that peace.” And it’s changed her life in so many ways. “All of a sudden, I’ve been very interested in online courses. I was a horrible student when I was in school, but now I’m so curious. I’m so clear headed… I am busy, busy, busy, because my new drug is productivity.”
Burke also shared that she relies on mediation (a type called Ziva), and therapy three times a week. She also started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during the pandemic at the advice of her former DWTS partner AJ McLean with whom she now hosts a podcast, Pretty Messed Up.