Cheryl Burke is a work in progress.
In the latest episode of Red Table Talk, the Dancing With The Stars pro, 38, opened up about years of sexual and mental abuse that led her down a path of alcoholism as a form of self-medication. She also spoke about how dancing helped transform her pain into newfound purpose.
"I was just in survival mode," she said of her addiction. "I used alcohol to numb. I’m an addict. I was a functioning addict. When I wasn’t drinking, people were, like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’"
Burke says her first experience with sexual abuse began as a child, when a family friend in his 60s started molesting her at the age of 5.
"It was more of a grooming experience because it wasn’t intercourse. It was other stuff that happened, sexual acts," she recalls. "He was grooming me, and he was my definition of 'love.' This is what love equalled. Seeing my father’s infidelity, being abused by this old retired mailman, I didn’t really know what a healthy relationship is or was."
The grooming, she claims, lasted years — until one day, her sister's friend caught him in the act and ended up telling her parents, who eventually contacted Burke's family and put an end to it. She spoke at length about the experience in TLC's 2015 documentary Breaking the Silence.
Burke ultimately found a way to heal her trauma through the art of dance, though it wouldn't shield her from experiencing other types of abuse at the hands of men.
"As I’m growing up, I then started ballroom dancing," she said. "Ballroom was something that was fun. But you had to grow up fast, because here I am wearing little tiny skimpy dance costumes, eyelashes, a fake tan — and I’m 11."
"Thank god for dancing, it saved my life. But within this industry of the competitive ballroom world, it is very much a man’s world," she continued. "The man leads, the woman follows — off the dance floor and on the dance floor. And with that comes abusive partners and abusive coaches. Were there acts of sexual abuse and mental abuse? A hundred percent. And am I just coming to realize that? Yeah, for sure, as I continue to do the work."
Years of internalizing that trauma led Burke to search for love in all the wrong places — and to repeat old patterns.
"In high school, I lived two worlds: It was like, my ballroom competitive life, and I dated two men that were very physically and emotionally abusive, like, to a whole other level," she explained. "For me, love equalled abuse. Love equalled infidelity. Love equalled manipulating, narcissistic behaviors."
During one of those relationships, Burke recalls her then-boyfriend whipping her with a belt while his parents watched and did nothing to stop it.
"I had bruises all over my legs. I remember his parents were watching it and didn’t do anything," she shared. "It wasn’t like he was hitting me; he was whipping me. I would see these welts and even then, I was like, 'Oh that’s not really there.' I think I was in shock — in fight, flight or freeze — I got in my car, he jumped in his car, kept banging up the back of my car so I’d pull over.
"I wasn’t allowed to have friends, let alone dance," she explained of that time. "I wasn’t allowed to stay at after-school programs or even, God forbid, look at somebody, because of this person who was very controlling."
In hindsight, Burke said she stayed with her ex because she was "addicted" to the "adrenaline rush" of being in a tumultuous relationship, which, she admits now, is not sustainable.
"I was not attracted to the nice guy," she says of those yeas. "I was only attracted to chauvinistic men [because] It feels like home."
Following her recent split from husband Matthew Lawrence, Burke has been open about the lessons she's learned about love, life and healing — which, she says, is the reason why she's "choosing not to date" as she continues to grieve the end of her marriage in a healthy way.
“It's just me and my Frenchie,” she told Yahoo Life in September. “I've been sober now for four years, and with that comes self-reflecting. I'm like a sponge and I'm just learning to love myself and really learning to be alone instead of lonely. I think it's very important for me to establish that relationship with myself so that I don't continue on that same pattern of men and relationships.”
Right now, the Dance Mom alum says she's using this time to look after her own needs.
“I used to put everybody else in front of me and my needs, and I realize that that I'm doing myself a disservice,” she explained. “I think it's very important to just take a breath and be kind to yourself because this is not easy.”
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