x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

How I lost half my weight

Reporter Kareem Shaheen, 23, of Dubai, says he has no regrets about his decision to have gastric surgery.

Kareem Shaheen went from wearing 56-inch waist trousers to 33-inch ones after his surgery.
Kareem Shaheen went from wearing 56-inch waist trousers to 33-inch ones after his surgery.

I stopped making plans for the future. I retreated further to an isolated, self-conscious corner, immersed in virtual game worlds while erecting a façade of good-natured humour. Laughing made things better. I laughed a lot. It made up for a constant, oppressive pessimism. But I wasn't bedridden with a bona fide terminal illness. At least not by most people's definition.

I was just too fat. That's a bit of an understatement. In June 2008, I weighed 151kg. I was 22 years old and almost out of college. I was a terrible dieter. My pathetic attempts at regulating the amount of food I was stuffing into my face hardly lasted a full work week. The university campus was littered with brand-name junk eateries. Fried chicken and double burgers were regular fixtures at lunch. So were huge helpings of rice and meat at the student centre's deli. And countless pizza orders in the middle of the night.

By contrast, the diets were too punishing to maintain after so many years of gluttony. I ploughed ahead with an austere diet, only to break down and once again embrace the cheeseburger lifestyle. The toxic, delicious taste of blocked arteries. I guess I also felt it was too late to really do anything. Watching me self-destruct in pure apathy was too much for my parents. I was a double major in journalism and engineering. After a rather dramatic argument, I made the point that I didn't want to keep working towards a college degree I had no plan to use. I couldn't picture myself living beyond 30.

I cringe as I recall that shameful episode. It was the climax of years of personal neglect, cowardice and general malaise. I don't regret choosing surgery. I needed help. I couldn't do it on my own. And, believe me, it was not the easy way out. My weight probably was going to kill me sooner rather than later. But I regret feeling so sorry for myself - self-pity that contributed to my inaction with respect to a mortal obesity risk.

The next day my dad, a doctor, called me to say he'd booked an appointment with a specialist in stomach surgery. I took out a pen and pad during my lunch break and started scribbling down some of the things I would do when I was thin. I was going to master French, take cello lessons and learn karate. I would graduate, go to the gym and travel to Paris. I realised that morbid obesity wasn't just shackling my body. It was also a prison of the mind.

I was still a bit shell-shocked when I timidly walked into the surgeon's office a few days later. He told me I had high blood pressure and an elevated heart rate. His declaration that not doing anything about the obesity would pose a danger to my life flew over my head like so many fat jokes. There didn't seem to be a purpose to all these preliminaries. I had already set my course. We picked the gastric sleeve surgery, which sounded like a middle ground. A frightening 70 per cent of my stomach was going to be carved out, the rest stapled together. Once done, it would be irreversible.

I didn't have formal counselling. I had spoken to the surgeon at length and discussed the issues surrounding the operation. I tried not to think about it too much. I didn't even research a whole lot on the internet. I would have lost my nerve. Surely the doctor and my father knew better. I exercised and dieted to lose a little weight, which the surgeon said would make the operation easier for him.

The doctor had told me about the potential complications, the main risk being leakage if the staples were not done properly. But with the number of cases he was doing monthly - his schedule was booked up every day - he seemed experienced enough. The other risk was that I'd relearn my old, terrible eating habits. I figured I was in pretty bad shape to begin with. I was quite adamant that I had to do the surgery one way or another, so I tried not to think of what could go wrong an concentrate on what was going to go right when it was successful. It was a weird switch from regular pessimism to optimism.

My friends and family were all quite supportive. Most of them saw the excitement I had at being a new person. On the eve of the surgery, I had a slice of pizza to celebrate. People sometimes wish they could go to sleep and wake up a different person. Last August, I got that wish. I didn't have any doubts about having the surgery before. I did after. For three weeks after the operation, I couldn't have solid food. The mood swings were dreadful. I would be sick after food in the first few months because I ate too fast or too much. Then I got used to the new food portions and it started working for me. Apart from a blood test three months after the operation, I don't get regularly monitored.

I don't really feel that people treat me differently now. Obviously I get no more fat jokes and flirting comes more easily. It was a lot of fun to watch people freak out when they saw me after I'd lost the weight. I was a lot more self-conscious before. So it is not the attitude of other people that has changed, it's mine. Almost a year later to the day, the changes are sometimes disconcerting. Predictably, having lost nearly half my weight, I'm weaker. My arm-wrestling prowess has considerably diminished. I need to exercise to tone my body and tighten up any loose skin. I'm working on an iron deficiency. The lack of food resulted in an irregular bathroom routine. I check my weight compulsively and my failure to regularly pop vitamin pills is causing my hair to thin.

I rarely sweat. I can walk without feeling breathless. I donated my old, 56-inch waist pants. Now I wear 33-inch ones. Food is now a mere annoyance, a drug I chew on to satisfy anxious parents (which occasionally hurts if I eat too quickly). I recently woke up terrified from a nightmare where I had eaten an upsized chicken sandwich. Fifteen hours of fasting are a piece of cake. Not getting hungry is my new superpower.

As for my list of things to do when I was thin: I have volunteered for local charities, finished my two undergraduate degrees, started a 100 push-up challenge, set up a savings fund, started playing football again and am working my way through some of the major Western literature works and the greatest films list. And right now, I'm living.