"The man leads and the woman follows, on the dance floor and off the dance floor. And with that comes abusive partners and abusive coaches," said Cheryl Burke, describing the world of competitive dance where her alcohol use turned into addiction. "Am I just coming to realize that? Yes, as I continue to do the work."
The 26-season veteran pro of Dancing With the Stars joined Jada Pinkett Smith this week on the Facebook Live show Red Table Talk to discuss her four-year sobriety journey and past traumas that led to her struggles with alcohol. The male-dominated nature of ballroom dancing contributed to relationships with men that were emotionally and physically abusive. But even before that, as a child, she'd suffered abuse from boyfriends and a caretaker; she testified against him in court at age 9, she told the hosts.
"For me, love equaled abuse. Love equaled infidelity. Loved equaled manipulating, narcissistic behaviors," Burke, a competitive dancer since childhood, reflected. As she grew older, "I was just in survival mode. I used alcohol to numb. And I'm an addict. I was a functioning addict."
Pinkett Smith, who is also in long-term sobriety, traced her own substance use behaviors to childhood trauma as well. "A lot of it had to do with being in a household of addiction," she said.
Burke credited staying sober with some of her greatest successes on and off the dance floor. Despite those personal and professional triumphs, she has faced challenges to maintaining her sobriety, and she spoke about those frankly. She recalled being triggered during a vacation last summer with her then-husband, actor Matthew Lawrence, when the hotel's room service sent a bottle of Champagne up, unaware that she didn't drink.
Burke's recent divorce from Lawrence made national headlines before she had fully processed it herself, creating emotional triggers that might previously have driven her to drink. These obstacles, large and small, have forced her to focus on herself and keep her goals simple.
"I'm taking my sobriety one day at a time, one minute at a time," Burke said. "It's not easy right now, especially during this divorce. I'm not proud of it. It's waving at me. … But then there's also a point where I need to put myself first and my sobriety first."
Despite the current strain of her divorce to Lawrence, the relationship spurred positive changes in her life. Burke previously credited their engagement as a motivation to stop using alcohol, along with the death of her father that occurred around the same time.
"It was almost like a promise to myself. I was engaged and was about to get married. For me, my dad was a former alcoholic, so I was going to crash and burn or I was going to stop cold turkey," Burke said on the LadyGang podcast in 2020. "It became an everyday thing, me drinking. I needed to show myself that this was not something that I depended on."
Burke has said that going public with her story has led to a greater level of accountability. Fans have also shared their sobriety journeys with her and thanked her for showing that sobriety is possible.
"The response from fans and people … has been uplifting," she wrote in a Sept. 2021 essay for Us Weekly. "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."
Photo by Mark J. Sebastian / CC BY-SA 2.0