Cheryl Burke of “Dancing with the Stars” on therapeutic honesty, addiction in the family and life in the spotlight

    To the fans who watch her on their TV screens, Cheryl Burke leads the picture-perfect life, dancing her way across countless stages and starring on national broadcasts. However, there is more to the “Dancing with the Stars” competitor than may meet the eye: Beneath the impressive veneer is someone who is unafraid to open up about her struggles with alcohol, mental health and abuse.

    As a competitor, Cheryl was taught that showing emotions is a sign of weakness, and turned to alcohol as a way to soothe anxiety and uncertainty. Tune in as Elizabeth and Cheryl talk about the ways drinking fosters emotional disconnection, growing up with addiction in the family, the events that led Cheryl to put down alcohol for good and how she has come to find strength in vulnerability.

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Cheryl Burke, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It’s so great to have you here.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Thank you for having me, Elizabeth. I’m a huge fan and thank you so much for just being so open and honest with your life and your story. It’s definitely inspired me to tell mine.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Thank you, that means a lot. That’s exactly why I told it. You and I were just talking and we figured out, I can’t even count how many times I must have interviewed you on Good Morning America for Dancing with the Stars because whoever was eliminated had to come on our show the very next morning.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Same hair and makeup. Yep.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Exactly. For you guys. It was like, “They must really just want to go to bed and get up and have a cappuccino someplace.”

    Cheryl Burke:

    Right, last thing you want to do is put a costume on and dance our elimination dance, right?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I know. I know.

    Cheryl Burke:

    But you know what, it’s great memories, for sure.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You are the classic example of so many people that I know in recovery. The person that everybody looks at and thinks their life is golden. She’s gorgeous, she’s talented, she’s on national television. She’s winning awards and winning tournaments and winning Dancing with the Stars. She’s a household name. She has it all. And yet, it’s a great example that no matter how shiny and perfect somebody’s life may look, it really isn’t that way underneath. Nobody’s life is perfect. And you had a lot of really tough things happen to you in your life that you’ve been very open about. Why talk about them?

    Cheryl Burke:

    I don’t know any other way. And I do have to thank my mom from when I was four or five years old – from the moment my parents divorced to being sexually molested as a little girl – she’d got me into therapy right away, so I had to talk therapy. So it taught me right away just to how important it is to talk about your feelings. But what I was missing was feeling the feelings then. I could talk about my feelings, I could talk about it, I could talk almost about anything that has happened to me. And there’s a weird disconnect that I’ve just realized that I feel I’m telling someone else’s story sometimes. And this was all happening when I was drinking. So there was a huge disconnect.

    And now being sober for three years, it has really wow, it’s been scary, but it’s been so enlightening at the same time. Because I’ve been taught not to feel my feelings really. I’m a competitor, I have to have that poker face. I come from… my mother who is Filipina, and her belief system was taught vulnerability equals weakness. Brene Brown, we know that that’s not true. And it’s really difficult to show feelings. In just society today, crying is a bad thing for some reason, or anything mental health related. Now we’re just opening it up.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    No, but you’re right. I always feel very embarrassed when I cry. I find that very, very deeply embarrassing, and I can’t even –

    Cheryl Burke:

    You cry by yourself?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Of course, but I find anytime I get… I used to do interviews with people and I would interview them, but sometimes really, really difficult things and it would be so hard. I would feel my eyes begin to fill up with tears, and I would dig a pen [crosstalk 00:03:54]. Yeah, first of all, it’s not about me, it’s about whoever I’m interviewing. But it felt embarrassing to lose control of my emotions. I think I just expressed why it feels scary because I’ve lost control a little bit.

    Cheryl Burke:

    And that is scary. I’m also a control freak. My mother’s a control freak. And that’s hard to live in that uncertainty and to be okay with not being okay. And that’s been difficult for me.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. A friend of mine once said, he’s a doctor, and we were talking about people using drugs or alcohol. And he said, “You don’t just numb the anxiety when you drink, you numb your whole life.” And it’s really something and I thought about that just now when you talked-

    Cheryl Burke:

    I just got chills.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. When you talked about the fact that only after stopping drinking and getting sober, did you really start to really feel what was happening in your life. You’ve said that you drank to not feel, you drink to numb.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Absolutely, for sure. From my social anxiety to living here in Los Angeles, going to red carpets, that is not something that I will ever get used to. I’m very blessed to have opportunities, absolutely. And that doesn’t go unnoticed. But I am an introvert at heart. I love being home. In a weird way I loved when we were locked down. I know that sounds horrible but it soothed my soul in a really unhealthy way. Me and my husband just being in this house, and then knowing that no one else is out so then you don’t have to feel guilty.

    Cheryl Burke:

    But back to why I was drinking. It was just an escape from my own reality. I couldn’t, there’s no way… Living in that lonely, maybe uncomfortable uncertainty, maybe knowing that your real friends… Do you have any here in this town? Do you not? Are people only approaching you because they want whatever that they want? I start to analyze. My brain is so crazy Elizabeth, it will go, go, go, go, go.

    And I’ve realized too now, I have insomnia since I’ve been sober. I used to sleep a baby when I was drinking obviously, naps 10 hours, wake up, do it again, seven nights a week. I was a ballroom by day type girl and then party or club goer at night for 10 years in a row. Mind you, I didn’t start drinking till I was 21. I lived a very Olympic lifestyle I guess, when I competed before moving to Los Angeles to do Dancing with the Stars, and there was none of that. But I know that feeling, my coach is an addict. I had the all or nothing, black or white, no gray. And then super just mean to myself to be quite honest, and just all or nothing.

    And this is how I would bully my friends when I would drink with them, like, “Oh, you’re going home? No, drink more.” And I made promises to myself I would never drink alone, then that started to go away. Or I wouldn’t drink before 5:00 PM, no drinking on weekdays. It just never stopped. It became so that my tolerance was just nothing got me drunk. I was a functioning drunk for sure.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You have said that being a functioning alcoholic was the scariest part. That you were drinking as much as you were drinking and yet still showing up and doing a spectacular job on a demanding show on national television in front of a lot of people dancing away.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Yeah. I mean, all I can say about that is my thoughts never got in my way when I was drinking because I was numbing. And we all know that that’s a scary place, unless you do some major Yogi meditation which I’ve been trying to do, but just to know, and I never knew this that we were not our thoughts, nor did I ever think this deep. It was survival mode constantly, seven days a week for me. I needed to just to get through this day.

    And in a weird way people that I have talked to that live a sober lifestyle say, “So, but when did you crash and burn?” And I don’t know if I’ve ever really crashed and burned in that sense, other than I think what to me crashing and burning is that feeling of just emptiness, of feeling there’s no purpose, I’m not my own best friend. I almost felt I couldn’t from the inside out, if you were to flip me, I felt disgusting. There was nothing there. I had no identity.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Did anybody in your life tell you that you were drinking too much?

    Cheryl Burke:

    There would be a couple of people, yes, but I would always of course never take responsibility and never really take them seriously, kind of like, “Well, what are you doing? You’re not much better in that sense.” Or I had this saying, I don’t trust people that are sober, that decide to live a sober lifestyle. 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.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I think we have this concept, this idea in our heads of what an alcoholic looks like. And I thought it’s the guy under the bridge drinking out of a brown paper bag or somebody passed out or in jail after committing the terrible offensive of driving under the influence or something, that’s what an alcoholic looks like. [crosstalk 00:09:42] It doesn’t look like it’s the news anchor who manages to do her job every single day or a competitive ballroom dancer who manages to knock it out of the park and win competitions every night. That’s not an alcoholic.

    Cheryl Burke:

    No, no athlete or nobody in the entertainment industry, yet if we did a survey, I think we would be shocked.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I think so too. Another thing that-

    Cheryl Burke:

    Do you believe that alcoholism… Sorry, go ahead.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    No, it’s okay. Finish your thing.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Oh, I was just wondering, alcoholism, addiction, it’s a disease.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Of course, it’s a disease.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Some people say no, and I don’t understand that. But that’s not my job. My job is just to focus on me and my sobriety. Yet, I think because we have been so hesitant to talk about stuff this, it’s the reason for ignorance.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well listen, for decades, the American Medical Association and doctors have been saying addiction is a disease of the brain, similar to depression and anxiety. And by the way, they’re all inextricably linked because many, many people who suffer from depression and anxiety self medicate with substances [crosstalk 00:10:52] as you did and as I did, to numb for me the anxiety, for you, whatever feelings you were trying to not experience at that point. And yet polls still show that, I don’t know, 40% of Americans think it’s a moral failing. There are so many people who were even after I wrote my book, would, “Well, why didn’t you just stop?” Or [crosstalk 00:11:19].

    Cheryl Burke:

    It’s like telling someone with a eating disorder, “Why don’t you just eat a burger?” No, that’s just not the way it works.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Or somebody with diabetes. It’s not a willpower thing and people aren’t in their right minds when they’re in the grip of this disease. Do you consider yourself an alcoholic?

    Cheryl Burke:

    I’m definitely an alcoholic and addict. Absolutely. Yes, 100%.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And when you made the decision to stop drinking three years ago, did something happen to spark that? You’ve been very open on your YouTube channel, I was really, really impressed by the courage it took for you to post videos of you looking wobbly from years ago. [crosstalk 00:12:02]

    Cheryl Burke:

    Oh, that was hard to watch.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, I’m right there with you. I did an hourlong special since my book came out and we pulled an interview where I was so hung over and incapacitated, and pickled by all the alcohol that, and just to give an example, I had to leave the screening room when they were screening and I couldn’t watch it.

    Cheryl Burke:

    It reminds me when Derek and I, we were at GMA and Diane Sawyer was interviewing us. And my publicist who is my publicist to this day, I believe said something like Diane Sawyer made a comment your kids are just… It was an Oscar party. We’re coming from, rest in peace, but Prince’s house. We were going there and we had to do a dive, 6:00 AM, and there was no time to sleep. It was 5:30, we got straight to set and I remember feeling so embarrassed because we reeked. I mean, I definitely reeked, I’m not going to speak for Derek, but this was years ago. And ever since then that started to… then the shame started to slowly… Because obviously I respect Diane Sawyer, that’s the last thing…

    And then I’ll never forget with Jason Kennedy when I was co-hosting on E!, and he straight up with mics hot and everything, was like, “Cheryl, is that tequila?” And I was like, “Oh, no.” I said, “Our mics are hot,” but obviously, that’s not what he was thinking but that’s all I was thinking. We’re very resourceful as an addict, and there was always those to-go cups, no matter what, because I would just be so freaking nervous.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And you needed alcohol to soothe that nervousness.

    Cheryl Burke:

    I thought that that would help, yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. Yeah, it doesn’t.

    Cheryl Burke:

    And maybe it doesn’t help long term, that’s for sure. But during that time, whatever, I can say that a burger would soothe… I mean, it’s just what you believe is what happens, whatever it is.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well, Stephen King once infamously said after he got sober that he had showed up to an interview on Good Morning America years and years ago so hung over that he thought he was going to vomit on live television. So [crosstalk 00:14:14] you’re in great company, for you’re under the influence interview on GMA.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Okay, good. I’m sure it’s not the first time that Diane Sawyer [crosstalk 00:14:23] has smelled alcohol.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, no, it’s not the first time that’s happened. You decided to stop drinking. There wasn’t one thing in particular, you say, right?

    Cheryl Burke:

    No. So my father was an alcoholic, and he passed away about three and a half years ago. And when that happened, he was living in Thailand. He owned a bunch of strip clubs. I had this really weird friendship with my real dad from when I was a kid. And had always felt that weird feeling of abandonment, which then led to me, I think being attracted to men like that, that were not committed, that had dark past and that were abusive to be quite honest. And my father, I put him up on this pedestal and he always fricking disappointed me, but nothing he could have done… It’s so weird, my mother raised me but I looked up to him. He was this man that I could never feel loved by. And that was a weird addiction in itself.

    And then my father passed and my then fiancé, now husband came with me to Thailand. My dad who was an attorney lost all, he completely just started turning into a vegetable. And when you take away Steve Burke’s voice and his way of communication, you take everything away from him. And he became so sick. In Thailand you’re allowed to drink in the hospital. I don’t know what’s going on there, there’s no rules whatsoever. We would come into his room, he’d have Jack on ice and that’s all he would drink. And it was to the point where his body was just deteriorating and he was dying.

    And a part of me, I have so many unanswered questions, but I knew that if I didn’t stop and make a promise to myself to stop drinking that I was going to fall down the rabbit hole of having to find the nearest facility and have it just be something where I would crash and burn. I just didn’t want to tell anybody, not even my fiancé, because I didn’t want the pressure of having to – what if I change my mind? Because back then, there was no way I went one day without even having a couple of vodka sodas and lime. There’s no way. And then I started thinking, “Well Cheryl, can I really not go a week?” That was way too much.

    And then when we came home, I remember my body reacting in different way to the alcohol. I used to never turn red. Like I said, functioning. I almost probably came across more sober than when I was sober. And I started getting hives. I would drink or smell alcohol and all of a sudden I would break out into hives, it’s weird. I know our bodies change every seven years but the fact that I reacted that, full on allergic reaction, no matter what alcohol. Obviously subconsciously something, whether it’s my body rejecting all this poison after drowning with it for so many years. And then our engagement party happened. Kym Herjavec hosted it, and I took one fireball shot and I felt so angry and broke out into hives, and then I just quit that night of our engagement party.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You should read The Body Keeps Score.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Yes, I’ve heard of that. I definitely want to read that. I have to write that down.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, I’ll email it to you.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Okay.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, it sounds like you had some sort of psychosomatic reaction to going to Thailand and seeing your dad in that condition in that hospital room and right up until his dying days drinking glasses full of Jack Daniels.

    Cheryl Burke:

    And that’s not it, Elizabeth. I mean, I still don’t know what the cause of death is. There’s just so much, I’m still going through PTSD. I think with the stripping business, I can’t even imagine what type of trouble he was in.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, yeah. So you made the decision to get sober. Was it a hard thing to make, a hard thing to do? I mean, how does that first day when you wake up and think today for the first time in I don’t know how many years I’m not going to have an alcoholic drink.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Thank God for the hives because I don’t know if I’d be here today.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Because of the physical reaction you all of a sudden mysteriously began to have to alcohol, it helped you get through those early days?

    Cheryl Burke:

    It sounds so materialistic, but I had hives before from allergies, all down my legs, and then to have it on my face and neck and just to have that heat. I was just like, “Oh, no, there’s no way. There’s no way.” It doesn’t make me feel good, it makes me feel angry. Because there was not enough alcohol to do anything other than pee every two seconds. And I was like, “This is not even working.” [crosstalk 00:19:32]

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I’m not getting the benefits and the alcohol, I’m only getting the hives.

    Cheryl Burke:

    The hives and the anger, nobody wants that. And my wedding is coming up. And I think Matt did say, I think after Thailand or maybe right before, that I was drinking a little much. Of course I found something else to turn it off. And I’m like, “Well, you’re doing this too much.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. How quickly did your life begin to change after you stopped?

    Cheryl Burke:

    Wow. Pretty quick. So a lot of people say, “Weren’t you more successful?” Yes, within myself. Something that I was missing was self respect, self love, self esteem, and just that peace. Wanting to be better. All of a sudden, I’ve been very interested in online courses. I was a horrible student, though, when I was in school. But now I’m so curious. I’m so clear headed. And also though, the other side of it is I don’t sleep. I don’t need more than four or five hours of sleep. I’m so OCD, I am busy, busy, busy, because my new drug is productivity.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Okay, so you traded one really destructive one and for one that we celebrate in our culture.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Unfortunately, yes. And I’ve adopted meditation as an everyday practice for me now and that has helped. One day at a time.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, now it is just one day at a time. You talk about the fact that since getting sober a lot of these feelings for you have come up. We know that child abuse is a huge marker for substance abuse later in life. An enormous percentage of children who are abused grow up to be addicts of some kind. And you talked earlier about how, since you’ve been sober, these feelings are coming up for you and are intense. How are you handling those?

    Cheryl Burke:

    Oh, well, I’m learning just to… And again, I really am trying to practice what I preach, because it’s so much easier to say this. But I want to hold myself accountable because it’s not easy to live in this uncertainty. And then sometimes, I have [crosstalk 00:22:04].

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It’s a lot of uncertainty right now too.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Totally. And I’ve been justifying my feelings. And there’s also no need for that. There’s no explanation needed. I feel it’s basic stuff that I wish we could be taught in schools because it’s, “I feel sad,” and that’s okay and done. But guess what the feeling is going to be there, feel it, but it will soon pass. And that’s okay, it’s better to feel it now than have it… And unfortunately and fortunately, because this is my life and my path, but I am going back to age five. I don’t even remember my… My timeline is so off. But I’m going back to when I was a girl, and honestly just not feeling. So I think I probably at age 12 by now. And it hasn’t stopped, that child abuse went from back to back physical and mental abusive relationships, until I moved here to LA when I was 21, back in 2006.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You’ve said about feelings, it’s better out than in, I really like that. [crosstalk 00:23:08]

    Cheryl Burke:

    Thanks to Emily Fletcher. So I started doing this online courses and I got really into this meditation called Ziva. They’re not a sponsor, I just totally believe in it. And it’s 15 minutes, kind of sounds it’s transcendental. Never done transcendental, I would love to one day. But at the end of her 15 minute course, she always says better out than in. She even has a song that I will not… I’m not a good singer, little tone deaf. I will spare you from that voice of mine, but it is so true. It’s so true. It is better out than in even though we were taught differently, or I was taught completely different. It was-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Me too.

    Cheryl Burke:

    … be humble, but not too humble. Be strong, but not too… It’s like, “What the hell do you want me to be?”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. I think I was just taught be strong and work hard and don’t ever show weakness, and certainly my anxiety which I had intensely as a child was, I perceived very strongly as a weakness.

    Cheryl Burke:

    It’s interesting because my mom who comes from first generation Filipino just now is she feeling this anxiety. And it’s really crazy Elizabeth, because she’d talk about rags to riches, freaking worked her butt off to be who she is, but unfortunately, money isn’t everything. Which coming from poverty for her, it was. And she totally ignored her heart, her feelings. And so she’s recently said, “Cheryl, what are these feelings in my stomach?” I’m like, “Mom, that’s anxiety.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, my dad is first generation from Puerto Rico and same thing, intense poverty, ended up being the first person in his family to get a driver’s license, to graduate high school, to go to college, got a master’s degree courtesy of the military. But that sort of hard work and discipline, I saw that in spades and that was great but when you bury everything else it’s the title of that book, Body Keeps Score, it eventually comes back to you. And my dad is much older now and I think doing a lot of thinking about his life and letting feelings come in for the very first time and I think he finds it uncomfortable.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Oh my gosh, my mom, as soon as she sold her company, which was recent, that’s when it all… My stepdad will never retire, he’s a dentist and I always say he’s going to die in someone’s mouth because he will never retire, he just won’t. But I understand that. I don’t believe in using a band aid. I think this is what makes life in a way exhilarating, is just not knowing.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It’s scary though. I don’t like the not knowing.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Oh my God, I know.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It’s a very uncomfortable place to be. I’ve talked about being in a hallway waiting for okay, that door closed, when is the next one going to open? And having the patience to be okay during that time, and not be spinning out in worry and anxiety. It can be very uncomfortable place to be.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Especially when just recently have I found or I’m, I guess, not forcing it but I’m really trying to find and believe in my higher power, [crosstalk 00:26:43] the program is important. I was raised Catholic, I was baptized Catholic-

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Me too.

    Cheryl Burke:

    … and I just never connected to anyone as far as the priest goes. I was really disconnected, I was like, “Just take me to Sunday school, give me a doughnut,” but that was about it. And so look, my mom is very religious but I just never found a real connection. And then you say God, I say sunset, this guy who looks Jesus walking down sunset. I’m just like, “This is all weird.” I was never that girl who believed in Santa Claus. I grew up way too fast and it was very much reality in that sense. And it’s kind of sucks but I’m trying to find this connection because I know that we can’t do it all. There has to be a way to surrender and I never related to the word surrender to however you want to say it, God, higher power, spirituality.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    We know that from statistics that 40 to 60% of people who try to get sober relapse. It’s very, very common. By the way it’s also not any different from people who relapse from other chronic diseases like hypertension, asthma or type 1 diabetes. And you’ve been very honest in the last couple of months on your YouTube channel about having drink cravings recently in the last few months. And I remember listening to you describe that and thinking, “Boy, I don’t know a person in recovery who hasn’t had that.” I call it that lightning bolt that comes out of nowhere and can… And that’s why for me you have to have a solid program.

    A friend of mine in the program always talks about… And he had a terrible drug addiction and had to go to rehab multiple, multiple, multiple times. And he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever heard talk about the disease of addiction and his own recovery. And I remember early on hearing him talk about being spiritually fit because he had to be ready for the knife fight in the alley, because he said that’s what the disease is like. It’s being jumped in an alley and you have to fight quickly and be able to resist that lightning bolt of, “Oh God, that looks good. I want one.”

    Cheryl Burke:

    Temptation.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah.

    Cheryl Burke:

    I know exactly why. I’ve been going through personal issues and everything’s been so uncertain. I’m 37, am I going… That makes no sense, and this is in October. But that question mark of just how long can I live as a dancer? Let’s be real here, a lot of women in their early 30s retire. This is not a sport that you could last forever and especially as a woman, and nor do I want to be that person who looks old grandma over here barely kicking her leg up. And then you’ve got these young [inaudible 00:29:56]. So look, there is a sense of maybe that’s my ego talking. But still I don’t know, I have so many question marks. And again, that’s how scary it is to live in the uncertainty. Of course I want to just pick up, I pointed here because this is where all my booze used to be. But of course I want to pick up a bottle of Tito’s and just hide in the dark corner and no one find me for two weeks.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Describe the situation that you found yourself in in Hawaii. I think you said somebody sent up a bottle of champagne to your room.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Yeah, the hotel. They were being nice, obviously. But yeah, I never realized how hard it was because it never crossed my mind ever, not once. Alcohol to me, I had no opinion. My husband can drink, though he doesn’t really drink that much. My friends, fine. And then it was my friend’s birthday and she had this big birthday bash at her place. And I mean, it was so nice to see everybody, a lot of the dancers were there. And now we only do one season a year, so we haven’t really seen each other as much. But then that’s when everyone gets to feel good. Music’s going, it’s nighttime.

    And then I start to like, “Oh, oh. Oh, no. This is when I want to drink because everyone is feeling so good.” And I’m feeling even… I just get more and more insecure as the night goes on. And she’s my best friend, I can’t just leave, even though all I wanted to do… It’s so hard for me to leave my house to go because I knew that… And then you have people like, “Why aren’t you drinking? Why can’t you just have one?” I’m like, “I can’t even talk to you right now because the music is so loud.” If they only knew, you just don’t know, what you said earlier.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You just never know. In one of the seasons of Dancing with the Stars, you were partnered with AJ McLean who was sober.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Last season, yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Did you tell him that you were also newly sober? Did you confide in him?

    Cheryl Burke:

    Yeah, so this is how it all started. So our friendship started even before the season officially started and before we knew we were partnered. We were originally going to do a podcast. I was going to do one on my own. And then AJ and his mentor, Rene Elizondo, they were going to have their own. Then one of the producers from my end was like, “You three have the same story and how cool would it be to have you three sober, different generations, talk about your sobriety and mental health. This is perfect.” Cut to, we get on a Zoom call and AJ is like, “Pandemic, whole tour got canceled. I think I’m going to be doing Dancing with the Stars.” And I’m like, “What?” So that’s how it all started. And I was like oh my God.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Are you kidding?

    Cheryl Burke:

    No. Isn’t that crazy?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Out of all… There’s a lot of people here in this town that probably their tours got canceled too. And I mean, even the producer had no idea, this was way before the cast was even announced or the pros. So it was almost we were meant to be. But what was hard for me to witness would be, I’m not necessarily known to be the nicest teacher in the world.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Are you serious?

    Cheryl Burke:

    No, I am a taskmaster. But I think this has a lot to do with the way I was coached. And just no BS, I’m not going to sugarcoat anything unless you deserve it. I just feel my words of affirmation could probably be something I work on. But yeah, I only know this crazy, strict way. And sometimes, for someone who’s newly sober, I was like, “Oh, no,” I never want to be the reason even though I know I’m not the reason. But I never want to trigger anybody. But I also need to do my job. So it’s finding a fine line.

    But when we danced together, I wasn’t part of a program and nor did AJ shove it down my throat, but he mentioned it quite a bit. And then recently, I keep hearing the word white knuckling or dry drunk, and I’m like, “Oh my God, is this who…” But then I’m saying, I’ve been in therapy consistently three times a week, but there’s nothing like the program.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    There really isn’t.

    Cheryl Burke:

    It’s magical. And I honestly have to thank them because they didn’t shove it down my throat, which is why I think I wanted to try it and actually do it. And thank God for Zoom. Because if it were an in person meeting, I’m not sure if I’d show up.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    This pandemic has been… Oh, that’s so interesting, that you found the Zoom meeting easier to go to than the in-person meeting. Because we know the pandemic has been very hard on people because so many people had trouble with the transition of in-person meetings to Zoom meetings [crosstalk 00:34:45] the loss of connection. Oh, yeah, there’s nothing quite like sitting in a room with a bunch of other people who-

    Cheryl Burke:

    Social anxiety, it’s scary.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. Well listen, good Lord, the first year I went to me meetings, I would sneak in at the very last minute with a baseball cap on and sit in the back and not talk to anybody. I did it all wrong. And now some of the people I’m closest to in my entire life, I have met through the program. They’re just amazing, amazing people, and many of them women who have done a lot of the same things I did, and have helped me deal a little bit with your own shame.

    Cheryl Burke:

    It’s the power of just listening. With Zoom, everyone has to mute themselves when… And it’s really nice to be able to not interrupt or feel like someone’s interrupting. It forces you but then it makes… Sometimes I just want to call in and listen, sometimes I don’t want to have to talk.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah, so how long has AJ been sober?

    Cheryl Burke:

    A little over, I think a year and a half or a year. So when he started dancing, he celebrated his a year of being sober towards the end. So I want to say he got sober in February of 2019.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I love the name of the podcast, Pretty Messed Up. You guys just go there.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Totally. Because our brains are just different. The way we think, I mean, I find it very entertaining.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And on the podcast, you talk to other people in recovery?

    Cheryl Burke:

    Yep, yeah. So during the show, during Dancing with the Stars, so obviously we started when the show started, he requested me. And we drove each other crazy. Thank God for Rene, that third person trying to calm his friend out. And also mind you, I was really tough on someone who was newly sober, shame on me. But it’s a lot of love anyway. And so we did that. And then we had Dancing with the Stars, of course, we had pros come on, because it was during the season. Now, since we’ve wrapped, which was a while ago now, we’ve had only mental health related guests, or I mean all types of amazing… And I’ve learned so much. And this podcast world is something I look for… I love it so much, because I don’t really feel I have an audience even though hopefully there is. But it just makes me feel I can be even more vulnerable. And it helps to talk about it.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And this YouTube channel that you started. Tell me about the decision to do that, because it is searingly honest. I watched a couple of episodes and the one where you’re talking about dating abusive boyfriends in high school, I just wanted to go, “Oh.” As the mom of two teenagers, my heart went out to you.

    Cheryl Burke:

    Thank you. And I know, it’s kind of the same way as this podcast. I feel I’ve been so edited on Dancing with the Stars. Disney, it’s also not about us, it’s about our celebrities, and that’s okay. And that’s why I do it, to help other people. And with this, I was like, “Okay.” But I, again, have been so just open and honest in general, because I don’t know any other way. I’m not trying to be an actor, I’m not trying to do anything other than just take my life day by day and not trying to use stuff to get… No, this is who I am, this is all I know. And I find it very therapeutic in a selfish way. But I also know from hearing people and seeing their comments that they can relate. They know that I am you, I am them. Except maybe I might have the courage to talk about it. But then maybe me having the courage to talk about it can then make you talk about it and stop something from maybe spiraling down that rabbit hole that we don’t want to go into.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. Well, Cheryl Burke, the YouTube channel is fantastic, the podcast fantastic, but just you and your willingness to speak out about this, there’s so many women out there who drink the same way you drank. And I’m just so thrilled to see that… I’m sorry for the insomnia because that is what – I share it, that’s a terrible thing. But life does get much clearer, I think. So I wish you much clarity.

    Cheryl Burke:

    And thank you very much. I feel like you started this whole trend for me in my eyes. So I’ve been following you and your story, and it’s very inspiring, so thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Thank you, Cheryl. Thank you so much for listening today to Heart of the Matter. You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and our website at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help for a loved one who’s struggling with substance use, you can text 55753, or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.

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    Published

    October 2021