Breaking the Cocoon
AIDS Advocate Greg Wilson Changes the Game with the Metamorphosis of a Heart
by George M. Johnson
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
A few weeks ago, I was given the pleasure to do my first interview and feature for A&U with Greg Wilson, Deputy Director of a youth-based agency called REACH LA. Recently he wrote a book called Metamorphosis of a Heart, a copy of which I was privy to reading so that I could be fully prepared for our interview. As I laid in my bed with a cup of tea by my side, I opened my computer and started to read the book.
This book was simply too good to stop reading. To sum up, the book is comprised of many personal stories of a boy transitioning into manhood and the struggles that helped make him the man he is today. He cleverly does this utilizing the transition of a caterpillar to a cocoon to a butterfly. He addresses the fact that, throughout life, we are constantly going through this type of metamorphosis.
Greg depicts the caterpillar state as one where we have no idea of what we are becoming. We are navigating through life the best way we know how with no true understanding of what the other side will look like. He uses stories about him going through sexual exploration with a “boyfriend” who was doing more harm than good. Greg’s dealings with this boyfriend exposed his vulnerabilities and forced him into some darker places where suicide seemed like a better option than life itself. Through failed attempts at his own life, he learned how beautiful the struggle of the cocoon state can be.
The cocoon is synonymous with the “struggle.” In life we are always going to have struggles. As we get over one hurdle, eventually you will come to a plateau and have another hurdle to jump over. He talks about this in-depth when he writes, “I’m starting to believe that struggling is a constant thing cause once I broke through the cocoon and began soaring, but I soon came to stop. I had to struggle a bit more. To me this transition into a butterﬂy is my purpose. Maybe there’s another cocoon I am meant to break through. Who knows what I will become once I break through the next layer and the next cocoon. And just how many layers are there? How much more struggle? Does it ever end? Will I consistently be striving to evolve into something greater for the remainder of my existence on earth? Are these even cocoons?”
The cocoon state is when we feel trapped within the struggle as we search for a way to break out. Greg uses faith and spirituality as his catalyst for emerging through this state several times over. He states: “Spirituality and Faith are more descriptive of the connection I feel to a higher power. It’s hard for me to conceptualize religion beyond spirituality. I’m talking about my spirit. It’s like speaking of my heart. It is the foundation behind something precious to me. It’s a way of life.”
The Butterfly state is where he is today. He used his beautiful struggle and journey through life to reach back into the community and help others who have had many similar struggles as he once had. Homelessness, jobless, and HIV-positive, rather than giving up on life, he used this to realize that this was God’s purpose for him and he wanted to serve. “Who would have thought that I would live the life that I have and still have a great heart and positive mind? I am fortunate that my attempts to end my life were not successful. That is the only failure I would claim. I am glad I failed at interrupting my purpose and trying to destroy the great impact I am meant to make in this world.” Greg’s journey is one of perseverance and this book will serve as a tool to help so many caterpillars on their journeys to become butterflies.
Feeling fully prepped, I contacted Greg on a Wednesday afternoon around 3 p.m. The warm, bubbly spirit on the phone mirrored what I had already felt after reading the book. After a few minutes of checking in, we started with our interview.
George M. Johnson: What made you write Metamorphosis of a Heart?
Greg Wilson: I know how long it took me to come to terms with my status, sexuality, and navigating through my own life. It would be perfect if life came with an instruction booklet, but it doesn’t. So I feel the more people share their personal life experiences it can help others going through the same things to not make those mistakes.
The second reason is that it made me free. A lot of people had no idea of my status or what I had been through. I had to ask myself, how I can help other people if I don’t share who I am? I also think the thing that prevented the book from coming out sooner was fear of public opinion, especially from family. I learned that it is bigger than just them and what their feelings are and that it was outweighed by the fact that I could possibly be saving a life with my story.
How did you come up with the name for the book?
In the book I speak on the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly. The caterpillar thinks his life is over until he becomes a butterfly. But the lesson is this: We have these experiences in preparation for what it is that we are truly meant to be. Our heart represents life and the things we feel, and our emotions are held in our hands. That is why the cover is of a person holding the heart in his hand. The heart transitions to a butterfly because the changes that we go through speak to what it truly is that we become. Not letting our circumstances confine us.
What inspired the use of poetry to enhance the story being told?
I feel that the poetry adds to the emotional connection a person will have. The poems were pulled from the times that I was going through those things and helped him to get through the trauma.
How would this book reach those who are not as faithful?
Even if someone isn’t religious or spiritual it still can give hope. I feel that people who do not believe in God can still read the book and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. They can see that there is still something greater that brought them through these things. This can definitely be a tool to help people gain faith and be a launching pad, or starting point, to have belief in things greater than themselves.
As far as the book goes, I had one final question for Greg—What do you want people to take away from reading the book?—and his answer hit right on point!
By the end of the book, he wants people to be inspired. It can help parents gain perspective into what their child or friend may be going through. And also provide cultural competency to providers and people who provide services to clients as to what their clients may be going through. That there is a “gift in the struggle,” as he mentions. “A lot of times we get a reward from the struggle. When we go through things it is for a reason and a purpose. The book should help people start reflecting in the belief that there is a reason for everything,” says Greg.
For the rest of the interview, I wanted to gain some perspective into who he is and the work that he does. As a person living with HIV, Greg is a leader, motivator, and lifesaver within the community. Working within the HIV community myself, I felt the need to gain perspective on his thoughts around HIV and where he sees himself going.
I asked him if finding out he was positive on Valentine’s Day affected his views on love. Greg responded that he considers HIV his first valentine in a sense. He has still never found love. He no longer looks at it as a bad day, but a day of celebration that he is still here and loves himself. “For years it did take me time to get past it, but I realized that if I don’t change the mindset of what that day means and love means then it will always be that,” he says.
Do you still see HIV awareness?
I think the info is more accessible in terms of people in the community seeing how it relates to them. Coming from an area where HIV was not normalized, it just wasn’t there for me. I didn’t know that I even needed information about it because it just wasn’t talked about. Now you have billboards, commercials, and articles that speak about it and people can see what it is and want to learn more about it. As time went on it took more experience for society to see what needed to be placed out there. I now refuse to have information not be placed in the community that I can now provide for them. The mixed messaging is still a challenge, as it is important that wearing condoms and other preventative measures are still just as important as they once were.
[pull_quote_center]Trust that there will be some positive coming out of the struggles you encounter. I learned that you may want to give up but know you are only being prepared for what your purpose is. I would tell my younger self to just hang in there and know that there will be something greater coming out of this.[/pull_quote_center]
What advice would you tell your younger self?
Trust that there will be some positive coming out of the struggles you encounter. I learned that you may want to give up but know you are only being prepared for what your purpose is. I would tell my younger self to just hang in there and know that there will be something greater coming out of this.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
Speaking! I hope to do more speaking and traveling. I want to be more impactful to the younger people going through some of these same experiences. I would also like do life coaching and involve myself in more leadership and mentorship activities. I definitely see more books being written. My ultimate goal is to open a transitional living home for POC. I’ve been homeless, so I saw what did and didn’t work. I want this home to be a place that helps those learn to become independent after leaving the program.
As we ended the interview, we continued to speak for several minutes after. Greg graciously apologized for being “talkative,” but I let him know “It’s okay to be talkative when you have something great to say.” Entering the phone call as workers in the same field, I believe we left the phone call as friends and kindred spirits.
George M. Johnson writes the new column, “Our Story, Our Time,” for A&U.