Dele Alli has revealed he was sexually abused at the age of six and selling drugs aged eight as the former England international opened up on a traumatic childhood.

In a raw and emotional interview with Gary Neville on The Overlap podcast, in which Alli and Neville fight back tears, the 27-year-old gives a candid account of why his career has declined in recent years.

Alli admits that as an adult he was addicted to sleeping tablets and drinking to “escape from the reality” of his difficult upbringing before he was adopted by the Hickford family. He also considered retiring at 24 and recently spent six weeks at a facility in the USA to help with his mental health. That positive experience, he says, has helped him deal with trauma and rekindled his passion for football.

The Everton midfielder told Neville: “It’s not something I have spoken about that much but there were a few incidents that give you an understanding. At six I was molested by my mum’s friend who was at the house at lot; my mum was an alcoholic. That happened at six. I was sent to Africa to learn discipline and then I was sent back. Seven, I started smoking, eight I started dealing drugs. An older person told me that they wouldn’t stop a kid on a bike, so I rode around with my football, and then underneath I’d have the drugs – that was eight.

“Eleven, I was hung off a bridge by a guy from the next estate, a man. Twelve, I was adopted – and from then, I was adopted by an amazing family, I couldn’t have asked for better people to do what they’d done for me. If God created people, it was them.”

Alli admits he was addicted to sleeping tablets for several years. He was initially prescribed them by a doctor but sourced them “from outside the game” as his addiction worsened. Friends and former Tottenham teammates, such as Eric Dier and Harry Kane, attempted to help but Alli said: “I didn’t care, I wouldn’t accept help from anyone. I was so numb to everyone. I’m proud I’m through it now.”

He elaborated: “I got addicted to sleeping tablets and it’s probably a problem that not only I have. I think it’s something that’s going around more than people realise in football. With our schedule you have a game, you have to be up early in the morning to train, you have all the adrenaline and stuff so sometimes to take a sleeping tablet and be ready for the next day is fine. But when your dopamine system and you’re as broken as I am it can obviously have the reverse effect, because it does work for the problems you want to deal with and that is the problem – it works until it doesn’t. I definitely abused them.

“I was never really dealing with the problem which was growing and the traumas I had, the feelings I was holding on to; I tried to deal with it all by myself. My adopted family, my brother, there were times they would take me aside crying, asking me to just speak to them about what I was feeling, but I couldn’t do it. I lost myself for a few years, I was just turning everyone away, when I had the family that saved my life crying, asking me to tell them what’s wrong, and I just didn’t want to do it.”

Alli no longer speaks to his birth mother or father after they left him feeling “betrayed and hurt” by making accusations against his adopted family in the media when he was 18. He suggested the departure of Mauricio Pochettino from Spurs in 2019 contributed to the downturn of a career that brought two PFA Young Player of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017.

Dele Alli with the then Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino, in 2019.

Dele Alli with the then Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino, in 2019. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“It was tough for me when he left and it was so hard for me to let anyone else in at that point,” said Alli, who was part of the England team that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018. “It felt fake speaking to other managers and it was probably down to me and my ego. I felt like they didn’t want to get to know me on a personal level so it was then tough for me to commit and give everything.”

Alli added: “Probably the saddest moment for me was when [José] Mourinho was manager and he’d stopped playing me. I remember I was in a bad place and I just looked in the mirror asking if I could retire now at 24 doing the thing I love. That was heartbreaking for me, to have even have that thought; that hurt me a lot and was another thing I had to carry.”

The playmaker has 12 months on his Everton contract and there is uncertainty over whether he forms part of Sean Dyche’s plans for next season. Everton must pay Spurs £10m if Alli makes 20 appearances and he has made 13 so far for the financially challenged club.

Alli, who is recovering from an injury sustained on loan at Besiktas last season, said: “When I came back from Turkey, I found out that I need an operation and I was in a bad place mentally. I decided to go to a modern-day rehab facility for mental health. They deal with addiction, mental health and trauma because it was something that I felt like it was time for. I think with things like that, you can’t be told to go there. I think you have to know, and you have to make the decision yourself, otherwise it’s not going to work.

“Inside, I was definitely losing the battle and it was time for me to change it because when I got injured and they told me I needed surgery, I could feel the feelings I had when the cycle begins and I didn’t want it to happen any more. So I went there for six weeks and Everton were amazing about it. They supported me 100% and I’ll be grateful to them forever.”

TheNSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331.