PERADENIYA, Sri Lanka — When Ananda Abesinghe went to pick up the clothes he'd left to dry under the baking tropical sun, they were gone.
So he decided to kill himself.
"At that time it felt like a big problem. Now . . . " the bearded man says, his faint voice trailing off.
Abesinghe, 34, drunk and distraught, bought a bottle of insecticide and downed it by the side of the road in rural Pilimathalawa, 60 miles east of the capital, Colombo.
"I felt there is no point in living anymore," he says, resting in a hospital ward in the central Sri Lankan town of Peradeniya.
In this beautiful island nation of feathery palms, fat papayas and ever-smiling people, despair may seem far away. But perplexingly, this paradise in the tropics has one of the world's highest suicide rates.
Police statistics show 35 Sri Lankans per 100,000 population killed themselves in 1997. In America the rate that year was 11 suicides per 100,000 people.
And experts say the Sri Lankan rate may be underreported by as much as 40%.
More people--over 80,000--have taken their own lives in Sri Lanka than have been killed during its 16-year-old civil war, which has caused about 60,000 deaths.
Cold northern countries like Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Hungary are the other nations with unusually high suicide rates. Why this sunny, pear-shaped island off India's southern tip is near the top of the list is somewhat mysterious.
There isn't a single explanation, experts say, but a combination of lethal factors: a lack of psychological help, a culture of suicide and the easy availability of deadly insecticides.
The impact of the civil war is unclear. The theory used to be that societies needed an outlet for violence, and that suicides dropped in wartime. However, the rate here was high before the Sri Lankan conflict began and has remained high throughout the fighting.
Dr. Ranil Abeysinghe, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research on the issue, says many suicides in Sri Lanka are triggered by family problems or work tension. But the main causes are depression or alcoholism, neither of which is properly treated.
In this country of 18 million people there are 35 psychiatrists and four psychologists--roughly one for every 500,000 people.
"People do not get any treatment at all. The result is it ends in a suicide," Abeysinghe says.
Lakshmi Ratnayeke, of the Sri Lankan volunteer counseling organization Sumithrayo, says many doctors and nurses don't understand suicide and would even scold and humiliate survivors.
"They used to yell across the wards, 'Who's the one who took insecticide?' " Ratnayeke says. "They said: 'Why do you bother with them? Let them die.' "
Meantime, suicide seeped into the national consciousness and became a common threat, a way out of an embarrassing situation, a reasonable option.
The newspapers are full of tales of mystifying suicides: A woman kills herself when her husband changes the TV channel. A farmer drinks insecticide after crops are damaged. A man tries to get a refund on a bottle of poison when it fails to kill him.
The culture of suicide is particularly strong among the young.
In most countries, the No. 1 cause of death among people aged 15 to 25 is accidents. In Sri Lanka, it's suicide. Elsewhere, those most likely to kill themselves are over 60. Here, it's teenagers and young adults.
Chandana Kumara, 21, had read about suicides in the papers, heard friends using it as a threat, and his cousin attempted it once. When Kumara's girlfriend broke up with him, he drank insecticide.
Now, gaunt and nervous, Kumara stares dimly at an antiseptic white wall from his bed in Peradeniya hospital.
"Sri Lankans are weak in their minds," he says. "They make decisions on their feelings and impulses."
One reason deaths from suicide are so frequent here is that the most common method--poisoning oneself with insecticides or pesticides--is highly lethal.
In Western countries, a depressed teen might gulp down a bottle of pills, be rushed to a nearby hospital for a stomach pumping and survive. Here, most people live in rural areas where lifesaving facilities aren't available.
Most tragic are the cases of people who take weedkillers, which make victims briefly ill, then appear to dissipate from their systems. But once the chemical is absorbed, no one survives: Two or three months later, when many patients are thankful to have survived, their lungs and heart deteriorate, then stop working.
The government has taken some steps to reduce the suicide rate, and the official numbers have dropped. But some specialists doubt the government figures and say suicides are as common as ever.
A presidential panel on suicide produced a report in 1997 offering recommendations to lower the suicide rate, but most have not been carried out. Deadly insecticides and other poisons are still easily available, and psychological help is rare.
When Abesinghe recalls the afternoon he tried to kill himself because his clothes disappeared, he finds it hard to understand. He blames his drinking; as he speaks his hands tremble after days of withdrawal.
He says he'll quit alcohol for good and won't attempt suicide again.
But he had tried suicide once before. Maybe he said the same thing then.
"If there's anyone around, I'd like to take help," Abesinghe says.
But living miles from the closest therapist and just yards from dozens of poisons, death is closer at hand than help.