Phoenix In Flames: Melotov Records Founder on Her Struggle with Prescription Narcotics

Melanie Voltz started Melotov Records in 2008 when she was just out of high school and within a few years was gaining attention in the underground. The label released excellent albums by acts like ACxDC and Outer Heaven and was poised to make a considerable dent in the underground. However, just as the label started to grow Voltz was hobbled by an addiction to prescription painkillers that started when she tried to find relief from debilitating back pain. Voltz has kicked her addiction and is preparing for her wedding and considering future plans for Melotov, which has been dormant for years. She shared her story with Decibel.

You need to know how I came into the position of needing 200mg of oxycodone daily.

For the last four years of my life, I was dependent on narcotic painkillers. I reached my breaking point in January of this year and quit using oxycodone cold turkey. Willingly going into withdrawal is easily the hardest thing I have ever done. The sleepless two weeks of severe withdrawal had me up all night, asking myself the same question: “how the fuck did I end up here?”

I am no stranger to automobile accidents. Between 2006-2018, I have been involved in five major accidents, including one where I was riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, and we crashed. The one that fucked me up permanently was in 2011. I was a pedestrian crossing the street in a residential area when I was struck by an SUV. This is where my back problems first began.

From 2011-2014, the disc between my L5-S1 vertebrae (your lumbar area and lowest vertebrae in your spine) was slipping further and further. In November of 2014, I picked up my puppy, and that was the literal straw the broke the camel’s back. An ER visit and MRI later, it was determined that my disc had slipped 7mm out of the 10mm of space your spinal column has. The disc was pinching my sciatic nerve, but it also caused my vertebrae to go crooked and grind on top of each other, bone-on-bone.

For those lucky few who have not experienced sciatic nerve pain, try to imagine a hot, sharp, knife continually stabbing your lower back and the hot, stabbing, intense, burning sensation running from your lower back and all the way down your legs to your toes. Every step was excruciating, and if I walked or was upright for too long, I would go numb from the waist down. This was daily for me—there was no relief.

Shortly after that ER visit, I was referred to a pain management clinic and received monthly prescriptions of narcotics—Ativan, Oxycodone, Flexeril to name just a few. These medications do serve a genuine purpose and I don’t want to demonize them because they gave me a quality of life that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. However, what I failed to notice at the time was that in addition to the physical pain, I was harboring toxic emotional pain as well.

Being in chronic pain is hard enough physically, but the bigger battle was my mental health. I had been trying every conservative method possible to heal my injury, doing anything to avoid having surgery. However, my physical therapy was denied after three months because my insurance didn’t believe I needed more sessions. This left me with no solution to fix my back. I was managing my pain with the oxycodone and the occasional epidural, but that was simply managing the symptoms and not treating the cause. I started mentally unraveling at this point because I had never felt so low in my life. Ever.

Hearing the one method that could possibly heal me was deemed unnecessary by a faceless, nameless entity was infuriating. That feeling of utter powerlessness coupled with my anger and stress and daily pain made me suicidal. I honestly wanted to die, and would fantasize about it every morning on the way to work. At the time, I was commuting three to four hours round trip, and every day while driving I couldn’t help thinking: “if I just veer my car off the road, I wouldn’t be in this pain anymore.”

The news about my health continued to worsen and I fell deeper into my depression. I felt hopeless that I would ever feel well again and began to abuse my medication. It hurts to admit this because I was so frightened of becoming addicted to opiates that instead of going up in dosage to effectively manage my pain, I wanted to stay at the same dose, and would just take more when I felt I needed it, all in the name of trying to avoid addiction. I would chew two pills instead of one. I sometimes wouldn’t wait the recommended 4-6 hours before re-dosing, and on bad pain days, I would rail them in hopes of getting relief faster—both relief from wanting to die and comfort from my physical pain. I’d combine them with my Ativan and muscle relaxers in a toxic cocktail, but a warm blanket of numbness and nothingness to me. I had a mantra at the time that I’d repeat to myself when I was high—it felt good to feel nothing at all.

You can’t numb one part of your body without numbing the rest, and that was the siren song of oxycodone. It allowed me to be comfortable in my suffering to the point where that was my status quo. It was exhausting. My emotional, mental, and physical health was running on fumes, dangerously close to my breaking point, and coasting downhill in neutral was a means of survival. I had given up on feeling well, which oddly enough led me to agree to have the surgery I was trying to ward off for so long. What changed my mind was not a change of heart, but rather a cynical can’t-get-any-worse mentality. Plus, it would prolong my use of the opiates that were getting me by, as twisted, and fucked up of an incentive that is.

I had my anterior interbody disc-fusion surgery on January 5, 2016. My surgeon cut me open through my torso, removed the herniated disc completely, implanted a titanium cage between my L5 vertebrae and the S1 vertebrae to reinforce my spine, screwed it down, patched me back up, and hardly broke a sweat the entire five hours. I felt relief instantly and was only in the hospital for two or three days (I can’t quite remember as I was on a round-the-clock Dilaudid and Ativan drip).

Recovery from surgery would take a year, especially since I had to regrow bone around the implant, but I was only out of work for four months. Aside from passing out in the shower two weeks after, recovery was going swimmingly. I felt better physically and mentally, and I was beginning to taper off my pain medications. I was able to go down from my prescribed 30mg oxycodone 6x/day to 10mg 4x/day during the first few months of recovery. I felt that there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Everything was returning back to normal, until August 2016.

On the way to my doctor’s office for a follow-up, I was involved in my fifth accident. My car was totaled, and I was hospitalized. Again.

The surgery site and the implant were all intact and unharmed, but now my mid-back up to my neck, which took the brunt of the collision, was severely injured. In short, it fucked me right back up again physically, but I was used to back pain at this point. The accident caused my mid-back to shift forward, dragging my ribs along with it, and created a prolonged inflammatory reaction in my muscles. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be upright. It hurt to exist. Again.

Just as quickly as I was able to taper down from 30mg to 10mg, I went right back up to 30mg again due to the accident and this new profound pain. And just as quickly as my mood was lifted and the fog of my depression was dissipating, it came crashing down. Again.

2016 to 2017 were the darkest years of my life. I felt like hope was a cruel mistress, tempting you to abandon rationale in exchange for a glimmer of something that is too far or too small to grasp. My suicidal ideations came creeping back, but now I was left without a car to follow it through with, so I considered the next best thing—overdose. Again, my cowardice prevented me from intentionally pulling the proverbial trigger, but I fell back into the same how-could-it-get-worse mentality and began to abuse the medication again.

I was chewing two pills sometimes three at a time now, skyrocketing my dose from 30mg 6x/day to 60-90mg 6x/day. I was railing them in my office at work. I was on forums trying to find ways to potentiate the effects without doctor-shopping. I was lying to myself and everyone else and had nefarious intentions on how to procure more pills, all because my mental and emotional state was in shambles. I had found a light at the end of the tunnel with surgery, and that was ripped right out of my hands in only a matter of months. I was so preoccupied with never wanting to feel anything again that my abuse consumed me.

Regardless, I still refused to go up in dosage because the real me was still somewhere buried deep beneath my hurt. That is what kept me alive during this time. As melodramatic as it may seem, I was fighting for my life, but the pain of struggling to feel normal again perpetuated my self-destructive oxycodone habit. It was a catch-22 of dangerous proportions.

Meanwhile, as all this inner turmoil is happening, the world still turned and I still had a job to work and a label to run. I began to neglect my responsibilities at Melotov. I couldn’t physically and mentally deal with pressing plant delays, mailorder, juggling multiple projects, and paying all the bills. Medical and hospital bills racked up. Adding this financial anxiety to an already emotionally unstable individual was like fanning flames with gasoline-soaked-kindling. The conflagration that was my mental and emotional state was relentless and unbearable, and I began the unhealthy habit of just burying my head in the sand.

Emails went unread for weeks; mail unchecked, unopened, and collecting dust in my room; and texts never read or read but never responded to. I became an emotional and literal recluse. I stopped going to shows. I stopped playing guitar. I stopped doing all the things I used to love and enjoy because all I was concerned with was my oxycodone and escaping the physical and emotional pain.

My shitty insurance unintentionally saved my life by refusing to cover my oxycodone any more beginning in January 2018. They wanted to switch me to Fentanyl, the buzzword-drug of the year. They said that my prolonged use of oxycodone actually made me a good candidate for Fentanyl since I was already heavily opioid-tolerant. Fentanyl is the drug that killed Lil Peep and Prince, and is 50-100 times more potent than heroin. I was speechless when my insurance told me this, but I am so thankful for this because it was the defining moment in my downward spiral. I had a deep visceral feeling that if I switched to Fentanyl, I wouldn’t make it the rest of this year alive. On the mental trajectory I was going, I would surely overdose, whether accidental or not.

I needed to get off all opioids, period. And it needed to happen immediately. I blew through the rest of my prescription as a “last hurrah,” but more so to psyche myself up to purposely go into withdrawal. January 17th I went off my meds cold turkey and spent the next two weeks in bed with symptoms that were similar to a very violent stomach flu.

The physical symptoms sucked, but the worst was the anxiety and fixation on the thought that I did this to myself and deserved the pain. I didn’t sleep for a good 10 days, and luckily the physical symptoms started to ease up after the 14th day. Mentally, it felt like my clarity was slowly returning once over the initial withdrawal hump. On about the 11th or 12th day of withdrawal, I had a revelation that brought me to tears. I was outside in the sun, trying to get some fresh air in hopes that it would alleviate the shittiness I was feeling. There was a slight breeze, and I thought to myself “man that felt nice.” And then it hit me.

For the last four years, I had been living life at an arm’s length distance. I hadn’t internalized feeling good. It was always “today was a nice day,” or “wow the weather is great,” but never “I feel good today,” or “I feel nice.” Four years may be a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of someone’s life, but those 1,460 days of excruciating back pain and debilitating mental anguish make four years seem like an eternity. To finally be able to internalize the feeling of a breeze on your skin was a miracle. It had restored hope that there was a light at the end of the tunnel to this seemingly incessant suffering.

I am now six—almost seven—months post-withdrawal and feeling better than I have felt for those last four years. I feel like Melanie again—the Melanie before all the back problems started. I’m following through on promises, keeping hang out plans, going to shows again, and playing guitar. I’ve started a new business that allows me to work in the entertainment industry, and I am feeling better physically for the first time in years as well. I still have actual, legitimate back problems, but I have fought for more physical therapy, and won, and have been supplementing my PT by working with a chiropractor/personal trainer. I manage my pain almost exclusively through cannabis and have been sleeping better than ever. I’m getting married in October and going to Thailand shortly after that.

I know how lucky I am to have made it. Not everyone is this lucky, especially when you’re taking opiates for an actual medical problem, and you’re juggling treating your physical pain with your mental pain—which one takes precedent? More often than not, it’s the physical pain, which keeps you hooked on opioids longer. I don’t ever want to take my situation for granted, but I am lucky to be alive.