Dancing With the Stars pro Cheryl Burke opened up exclusively to Us Weekly about her battles with sobriety, loss and healing through the reality TV show.
This past summer, I celebrated three years of sobriety. My decision to commit to being sober was a long time coming. I was functioning, had just gotten engaged, and then my father passed away. He struggled to stay sober throughout my entire life, and his death served as a wake-up call to me. I could either numb everything the way I always had or I could finally let myself feel all of those feelings of grief — sober.
I only started opening up publicly about being sober about a year ago. I had been introduced to AJ McLean, who would end up being my partner on Dancing with the Stars, and his longtime friend and mentor Rene Elizondo Jr. Even before he was set to do the show, we were talking about starting a podcast because our journeys with sobriety and mental health struggles were so similar. Through the podcast, I realized how therapeutic it was to talk about, and I started sharing more of my own journey. Being public about my struggle made me hold myself accountable.
It’s been really powerful – when I started sharing more, the pandemic was in full force, and a lot of people were falling down that dark hole. I also knew how intense DWTS was and knew it would be a struggle for AJ as well, being newly sober. We had very open conversations about our pasts and I know that being under so much pressure on a show like that can be detrimental to your mental health and sobriety, so we leaned on each other and had Rene to guide us through it all.
The response from fans and people who have come across our podcast and my YouTube channel has been uplifting. It makes me want to read comments, which I’ve usually avoided. I love hearing other people’s stories. The best way to learn is by listening to other people’s stories, and realizing you are not alone. I actually only started going to AA regularly this year, so my substitute for hearing those stories was reading messages from my supporters. My therapist has said that the podcast and YouTube has been the best thing for me as far as an outlet and seeing how my story affects other people.
My biggest struggle through it has been actually feeling my feelings. I’ve been through a lot in my past and alcohol used to numb those dark thoughts and feelings, but now I have to face them as they come up. I take it one day at a time, tell myself it is what it is, and try to surrender to that and stop micromanaging. It will always be a struggle, but now I have healthy ways of coping.
My husband, Matthew Lawrence, was a huge reason for deciding to commit to sobriety. I don’t think I would have done it if we hadn’t made the commitment to get married. With him, I saw a bright future after losing my father, and I was able to come out of a dark place. AJ and Rene are huge supports for me as well. They were there for me when I was ready, and Rene is like a mentor/guru with his 20+ years of sobriety.
It can also be difficult for the people around you to adapt to your change in lifestyle. There’s a lot of “why can’t you just have one drink?” even from close friends when you’re at a birthday party or with a bunch of people who you used to party with. It’s important for people who haven’t been sober to take the time to educate themselves on how to respect their sober friend. Your relationships will change, but you’ll find new relationships, too. I’ve made a lot of new friends who are also wanting to evolve and grow into the best version of themselves like I am. When your perspective changes, you attract different people in your life.
I have always said that dance is a form of therapy. As stressful as it is, pouring myself into a season of DWTS and dedicating my time to help my partner grow, in whatever journey they are on, is what I love to do. With Cody Rigsby, he knows that I’m sober and definitely supports it. He has family members that struggle with addiction, and he is such a huge mental health advocate. I know a lot of people say that his classes really got them through the pandemic, which is amazing. We both practice meditation and mindfulness and have deep conversations off the dance floor already so I am super lucky to have his support.
While I continue my sobriety journey, focusing on other passion projects and putting all of my energy into those — whether it’s my podcast, my YouTube channel, designing face masks or diamond painting — all of it keeps me from veering off the path. I recently created a collection of loungewear with Bailey Blue, which has been my main focus outside of DWTS. I wanted to put out something that makes women feel comfortable and look cute while being totally confident because when you look and feel good, you do good. I am committed to focusing my energy on what can help people by sharing what has helped me.
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